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Coastal Schools

Coastal schools

This is an update on our latest research into the challenges faced by schools in coastal regions and how they have sought to overcome them.

The research team are Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope PFHEA, Professor of Education at Plymouth Marjon University and Dr Rowena Passy at the University of Plymouth.

Massive investment in London has led to its rise as an education superpower, succeeding despite high levels of deprivation. Coastal schools, however (here defined within 5.5km of the coast of England) appear to face continuing challenges that impact on performance (Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2015). There were signs that in 2012 the Coalition government had begun to recognise the poverty in coastal regions:

‘Many seaside towns and villages have suffered decades of economic decline. Many young people, for example, have moved away from coastal areas due to a lack of job opportunities. We need to invest in coastal towns to help their economies grow and reduce unemployment and deprivation’ (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2012).

 The schools’ performance watchdog Ofsted (Ofsted, 2013; see also Weale, 2014) identified a link between student performance and ‘deprived coastal towns’, with a realisation that these areas have ‘felt little impact from national initiatives designed to drive up the standards for the poorest children’ (Ofsted, 2013). Yet recent reports by the current government (DfE, 2016) have rejected claims that socio-economically deprived coastal regions face specific challenges in education because of their geography, economies and social contexts. It is therefore reassuring that Ofsted’s Annual Report 2016 identified issues for schools in isolated and deprived areas:

‘There is also considerable evidence that it is schools in isolated and deprived areas where educational standards are low that are losing out in the recruitment stakes for both leaders and teachers’ (Ofsted, 2016).

The way in which the current government has categorised and reported data on coastal schools makes these isolated schools (and isolation is not only about geography; it can include isolation from other schools, economic opportunities and wider social experiences) appear to have similar outcomes to other schools (Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2016). In government data coastal schools as established as a category and compared to the category ‘all other inland schools’, which includes rural and urban schools. When rural schools are taken out of the category ‘all other inland schools’, the remaining schools’ data suggests a difference when compared to coastal schools’ data (DfE, 2016). There are similarities in the issues reported on coastal and rural schools:

‘In terms of intake and performance, coastal schools appear to face comparable challenges to other schools that are similarly isolated and deprived’ (Centre Forum, 2016).

There is evidence in performance data that shows differences in attainment for coastal schools e.g. at Key Stage 2. Less disadvantaged, non-isolated schools that are outside coastal areas have 3 percentage points higher Level 5 attainment rates and 0.02 National Curriculum Levels’ better progress than those in coastal areas (Centre Forum, 2016). SchoolDash, which analyses education data, examined the performance of coastal schools for 2015 GCSE results showed that pupils in coastal schools were on average achieving 3% lower results than inland schools, based on the benchmark five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. The figures also show that coastal schools have a more deprived intake, with 3% more pupils eligible for free school meals - a figure similar to the achievement gap.

There are exceptions, however. The SchoolDash data shows that places such as North Tyneside and Lancashire coastal schools outperform their inland counterparts, and there are some coastal areas which are conspicuously affluent. But the national picture shows a trend of overall lower performance in coastal schools. Thomson (2015) reported that there was a lower rate of relative progress from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4 among Pupil Premium pupils attending coastal schools, predominantly white British pupils in disadvantaged areas.

As Ofsted Chief Sir Michael Wilshaw has articulated, problems for schools can stem from "isolation", and he acknowledged last year that as well as being physically isolated, too often coastal schools are cut off from the help they need (access to school to school support and professional development opportunities) and the pressure to do better (local competition).

‘These schools [coastal] are deprived of effective support when times are bad. They are left unchallenged when they flirt with complacency’ (Michael Wilshaw, cited in Weale, 2015). 

Little has been done in the last couple of years to address the wider political issue of parity in education. Schools outside London and some other cities have not received government support, resource or investment to challenge intergenerational underachievement. Children from white British socio-economically deprived backgrounds do better in London and the cities than they do in coastal towns and deprived areas. The State of the Nation Report 2017 even identified that:

‘Isolated rural and coastal towns and former industrial areas feature heavily as social mobility coldspots. Young people growing up in these areas have less chance of achieving good educational outcomes and often end up trapped by a lack of access to further education and employment opportunities.’ (Social Mobility Commission, 2017: 2)

Until economic and educational resources are allocated according to school need, then the gap in performance and issues with teacher and leader recruitment will continue.

The cause of gaps in attainment in isolated communities is more complex than low income, as the data for the Isle of Wight shows (similar pupil premium numbers to the national average, yet specific coastal schools have significant underperformance). Poor teacher and leadership recruitment to schools in these areas is a response to the full isolation of schools situation - economic, geographic, social and educational.

Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope and Dr Rowena Passy engaged with the coastal schools research through three related studies that explored how coastal schools (newly sponsored ‘first phase’ academies) approached the task of changing school culture to effect school improvement:

  1. a seven year longitudinal study following one academy from the time of conversion in 2010 (The Class of 2010)
  2. a ‘pilot’ study of three first phase coastal academies
  3. Comparative analysis of six first phase academies located in seaside towns/cities in England

It was a qualitative investigation in which we studied publicly-available data; examined school documentation; Interviewed principal/executive principal in each school and interviewed a sample of four teachers in each school.

The findings, when considered together, suggest that schools in socioeconomically deprived coastal communities have common characteristics. School performance appeared affected by school isolation; Geographical, Socioeconomic and Educational. These isolating factors appeared to have an impact on five critical issues: 

  1. Student attainment
  2. Student expectations
  3. Staff expectations
  4. Teacher recruitment
  5. Teacher retention

Socioeconomic isolation was reported by teachers and school leaders as consisting of:

  • seasonal and/or minimum wage local employment
  • few manufacturing and/or professional opportunities
  • multi-generational low or unemployment

Compounded by other factors:

  • geographical isolation
  • depleted and stalled economy
  • low skills base in the community
  • falling demand for property giving rise to cheap housing

Student Attainment in the schools in the research was below expected standards and the schools selected for investigation were all national challenge schools prior to changing to academy status in 2010. Student attainment in the six coastal academies in our research since 2010 demonstrated:

  • Improvement following sponsored conversion (from national challenge circumstances) from 2010 to 2013 (5 GCSE’s inc E&M)
  • All schools demonstrated a decline in student attainment from 2013, especially in E&M, by 2017.

All six schools except one experience the school principal that implemented the academy sponsorship leaving within three years. Post 2013 saw rapid and radical changes in education policy relating to school performance measures, curriculum and school responsibilities. Both of these factors were considered as reasons affecting the trajectories in school performance recorded by the DfE.

Student and staff expectations and aspirations were low in all six schools in 2010:

I mean I've thought about it with the seaside thing … It’s the redundancies in the 80s and early 90s where a huge amount of males were made redundant … Now we're teaching … probably the second generation of kids that have gone through a whole life [without seeing their parents employed] … I think that's got a lot to do with it. They just, they don't see, they don't connect school with employment … I would say on the whole, the vast majority of the boys just don't see a future, [a connection] between what they're doing in this place and what's going to be happening in 18 months’ time.’ (Senior leader).

Many staff expected low parental engagement, poor student behaviour and low aspirations. Establishing a culture where staff and student expectations were raised was a huge challenge. Parent’s poor experiences of education (and typically the school their children were attending), along with poor local employment opportunities and conditions appeared to create a lack of parental engagement with the schools.

Teacher recruitment and retention was a key challenge in the coastal schools studied.


  • Limited employment prospects for partners of teachers, school leaders
  • Those (typically young and NQTs) not in relationships wanted a wide range of social opportunities not available


  • Lack of ‘churn’ in long serving teachers (low house prices disabling opportunities to move to more expensive/affluent areas; low school to school professional mobility due to absence of closely located schools)
  • Higher attrition of early career teachers (low social, cultural opportunities

They said:

‘Our location … is rural and coastal, so you've got a limited pool of people to pull from’ (School Leader).

‘We're actually finding that now it's not only the STEM subjects, but it's the other subjects across the board that we're finding difficulty in recruiting. … I need, desperately need a Learning Director for English because my current one is going to be retiring at the end of the year; I've advertised twice now and I've got not a single bite’ (School Leader).

Educational isolation was characterised by:

  • No/or limited access to a local university (in all but one case)
  • Struggling or ‘coasting’ schools in same locality, with reduced access to high performing schools

‘There is no outstanding secondary school, whereas if you went to a metropolitan area we would see the outstanding secondary schools. They've been loaded, they've had designations such as National Support Schools, the National Leaders of Education and they, in many instances, are the local hubs in school improvement’. (School Leader)

  • Absence of school improvement initiatives
  • Inward-looking nature of school improvement

‘Some of the initiatives which I've been used to in city areas weren't immediately apparent here. And so the really strong, sharply-focused school improvement initiatives which were spawned out of first National Strategies and then the City Challenges, they were conspicuous in their absence’ (School Leader) 

‘What you don’t get is a lot of refresh. So in big cities and conurbations, you get movement in and out … [Here, schools] tend to look inwards for their solutions and for school improvement. I think that’s a massive risk’ (School Leader)

The DfE (2016: 52) stated that ‘there does not appear to be much difference between coastal and inland schools’ (p. 52), but disaggregated DfE (2016) data shows:

  • Fewer teachers move to other schools from coastal and rural schools compared with inland urban schools
  • Fewer new entrants to coastal and rural than all inland schools
  • Fewer NQTs in coastal and rural than all inland schools

This is supported by Social Mobility Commission data reported in the State of the Nation Report 2017: 39:

 ‘The most deprived coastal rural areas have one and half times the proportion of unqualified teachers that the least deprived inland rural areas have…Schools in densely populated urban areas benefit from support from nearby ‘outstanding’ schools but schools in rural and coastal areas are isolated and unable to tap into partnership infrastructure for support’.

The Class of 2010: A seven year study of a coastal academy in England

In common with other coastal schools, this academy is located in an area of high socio-economic deprivation, with multi-generational low and/or unemployment, and local parents/carers who had often had poor experiences of education. There are very high levels of students recorded as pupil premium/ever 6 free school meals, demonstrating persistent disadvantage as the common denominator for students in the school. The socio-economic position of the community in which this coastal school is located clearly has an impact on senior leaders, teachers, students and parents.” (Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2017: 29)

From 2010 - 2017, Tanya Ovenden-Hope and Rowena Passy followed the journey of a coastal school that was in the ‘first wave’ of schools required (due to ‘national challenge’ circumstances of underperformance) to convert to academy status with the support of sponsors. The challenges faced by the school due to its coastal and socio-economical disadvantaged location and its new independent status, together with the wide-reaching ambitions of the academy leaders, offered a unique opportunity to document and explore the changes, challenges and successes for students, staff and the school. How would the new academy develop? What challenges would the new leaders face? How would changes be received and experienced by staff and students? Would the curriculum support and engage students? Would being an academy improve school performance?

Academy leaders and sponsors agreed to a seven-year longitudinal study that would include exploring the secondary educational experience of the Year 7 cohort, the Class of 2010, the first students to enter the new academy.

The aims of the study were to:

  • explore the senior leadership aims and priorities, and how these might change and develop over time.
  • investigate teachers’ perceptions of teaching, learning and assessment within the academy.
  • monitor the academic progress of the student cohort that entered the academy as Year 7 in 2010
  • understand the educational journey of a sample of 15 Year 7 students.

Each year we visited the academy and interviewed the principal and/or a senior leader, four different teachers of the Class of 2010 and the Class of 2010 students. We also studied the academy’s publicly-available data, examined academy documents and collected the anonymised student cohort data on levels of progress and attainment.

We anticipated that the Class of 2010 project would yield detailed understanding of the development of the academy as a new institution, of the progress and outcomes for this cohort of students, and of staff and student views on the impact of the education offered by the academy. We were interested in the additional challenges schools in areas of socio-economic disadvantage appeared to face and in particular those in coastal regions (see Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2015 report on coastal academies). Annual reporting of this information to the academy would help to raise the profile of the student and teacher voice, offer the opportunity to report on different strategies and developments, with findings offering the potential to be used to shape internal decisions. In addition, we intended that national and international dissemination of the findings could help to influence thinking on the challenges for other coastal schools and consequential strategic, operational or policy decisions.

Something we did not anticipate, however, was that fundamental changes within the academy would coincide with far-reaching and rapid changes within English secondary education. Two different government administrations and a series of policy directives placed new pressures on the school at a time in which leaders were already implementing extensive changes aimed at the primary measure of school accountability – student performance in formal examinations. This makes the study particularly valuable as a means of illustrating policy impacts at a challenging time in English education.


We are enormously grateful to all those who participated in our Class of 2010 research and gave their time so generously to make our research so interesting and illuminating. Click here to download a summary of the project findings.


References and further reading


Centre Forum (2016) Education in England: Annual Report 2016. London, Centre Forum. 

Department for Communities and Local Government (2012) Policy: Supporting economic development projects in coastal and seaside areas. London: DCLG.

Department for Education (2016) Schools workforce in England 2010 to 2015: trends and geographical comparisons. September 2016. London, Department for Education.

Ofsted (2016) Ofsted Annual Report. London, Ofsted.

Ofsted (2013) Inspections of Schools, Colleges and Children’s Services. London, Ofsted.

Ovenden-Hope, T. & Passy, R. (2016) ‘The Challenge of School Improvement in Coastal Regions in England’, in symposium ‘Recruitment, Retention and Region: The new three R’s challenging education in England’ Howson, J., Ovenden-Hope, T., Passy, R. and Gorard, S. British Educational Research Association Conference, Leeds University, September 2016.

Ovenden-Hope, T. & Passy, R. (2015) Changing Cultures in Coastal Academies. Cornwall; Plymouth University, The Cornwall College Group and The Academies Enterprise Trust.

Social Mobility Commission (2017) State of the Nation Report 2017. London: SMC.

Thomson, D (2015) The pupil premium group in coastal schools is their rate of progress really any different to schools with similar intakes. Education DataLab.

Weale, S. (2014) Ofsted to warn on rising number of pupils taught in failing secondaries, Guardian, 10 December.

Weale, S. (2014) Out in the cold: the coastal schools neglected by national initiatives, Guardian, 15 October.