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Area-based Responses to Educational Disadvantage

Summary and Keywords

Countries across the world struggle to break the relationship between socio-economic disadvantage and educational outcomes. Even in otherwise affluent countries, children and young people from poor and marginalized families tend to do badly in education, and their lack of educational success makes it more likely that they will remain in poverty as adults. Moreover, socio-economic disadvantage and educational failure in these countries tend to be concentrated in particular places, such as the poor neighborhoods of large cities or of post-industrial towns. This has led policy-makers and practitioners in many administrations to favor area-based initiatives (ABIs), which target such places, as one set of responses to social and educational disadvantage. Some ABIs are limited to funding schools more generously in disadvantaged areas or giving them additional support and flexibilities. The more ambitious initiatives, however, seek to develop multistrand interventions to tackle both the educational and the social and economic problems of areas simultaneously.

The evaluation evidence suggests that these initiatives have so far met with limited success at best. This has led some critics to conclude that there is a fundamental contradiction in their use of purely local interventions to tackle problems that originate outside ABIs’ target areas, in macro-level social and economic processes. However, it is possible to construct a convincing rationale for these initiatives by understanding the social ecologies that shape children’s outcomes, and by formulating holistic interventions aimed at reducing the risks in those ecologies and enhancing children’s resilience in the face of those risks. There is, moreover, evidence of a new generation of ABIs that has begun to emerge recently. These new ABIs are able to operate strategically and over the long-term, rather than being bound by the short-term nature of policy-making. These newer initiatives may offer a better prospect of tackling the link between social and educational disadvantage, even in unpromising economic circumstances, and even within the context of “politics as usual.”

Keywords: disadvantage, poverty, children’s outcomes, area-based initiative (ABI), intervention, social ecology, risk and resilience, education

Disadvantage, Place, and Area-Based Initiatives

Countries across the world struggle to come to terms with a paradox: Education is seen as a means of lifting individuals, communities and nations out of poverty, yet educational outcomes are strongly linked to the socio-economic circumstances of learners. This is clearly the case in countries where large numbers of children experience chronic poverty and where an absolute lack of resources limits effective access to education (UNICEF, 2014). However, the elimination of chronic poverty is no guarantee of entirely equal—or, more modestly, of fairer and more equitable—outcomes for children regardless of background. Even in middle- and high-income countries, children from economically poorer homes tend to do markedly less well than their more advantaged peers (see, for instance, OECD, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2016; Ballas et al., 2012; DG EAC, 2015).

There have been many attempts to break the link between social background and educational outcomes (see, for instance, Demeuse, Frandji, Greger, & Rochex, 2012). Some of these attempts have focused on what might be called systemic approaches. These seek to embed structures and practices for tackling educational disadvantage within the education system so that they operate routinely in all contexts. In particular, many countries have opted for so-called standards-based reforms that seek to ensure that all schools perform at a high standard, regardless of the characteristics and backgrounds of the students they educate. Other attempts, by contrast, have focused on targeted interventions, seeking to identify groups of disadvantaged learners and/or schools where such learners are concentrated, in order to provide them with additional resources or to develop more appropriate practices and forms of provision.

There is also a third group of interventions that overlaps to some extent with systemic and targeted approaches, but also has important distinctive features. These approaches are targeted in the sense that they introduce practices and forms of provision that are not available throughout the education system. However, their targeting is shaped to a greater or lesser extent by the identification of particular places where some distinctive approach appears to be called for. In most—though not quite all—cases, these places are characterized by high levels of disadvantage in the populations who live there and therefore by high concentrations of educational disadvantage in the populations of local schools. As Smith (1999, p. 49) argues,

. . . the key reason [for area approaches] is that some areas suffer disproportionately high levels of economic and social deprivation, including very high levels of worklessness, poverty, poor health, high crime, and fear of crime, and need special attention. Although some issues can only be addressed through national level mainstream policies it is the case that some problems occur because of local area related factors and it is therefore appropriate to address them at the local level.

There is no internationally-agreed term to label such approaches. In England, however, where these kinds of approach have, at times, been particularly common, they are often labelled as “area-based initiatives,” or “ABIs” (Kerr, Dyson, & Raffo, 2014), and that is the term we use in this article.

A glance at developments in Europe and the USA will illustrate the extent to which initiatives of this kind have proliferated in the education systems of affluent countries. In Europe, initiatives such as the Zones d’Education Prioritaires (ZEPs) in France and (for a limited time) in Belgium, and Territórios Educativos de Intervenção Prioritária (TEIPs) in Portugal are well-known examples of ABIs (Dyson, Raffo, & Rochex, 2012), while a study of cross-sectoral interventions found 16 major initiatives in Europe to address educational disadvantage, most of which have some area-based elements (Edwards & Downes, 2013). In England particularly, education-focused ABIs go back at least as far as the Educational Priority Areas of the 1960s and 1970s (Halsey, 1972; Smith, 1987; Smith, Smith, & Smith, 2007) and embrace a series of more recent initiatives in the 1990s and 2000s (Kerr et al., 2014).

There is a similar proliferation in the USA, where there has been considerable interest in recent times in the proposition that deeply ingrained education (and, indeed, other social) problems can only be solved effectively through the “collective impact” (Kania & Kramer, 2011) of stakeholders working together within targeted locales. Organizations such as StriveTogether, for instance, encourage local actors to work together to develop strategies for tackling local educational problems. At the federal level, under the Obama administration, the Promise Neighborhoods initiative supported disadvantaged communities in developing strategies for improving educational and other outcomes for children and young people. Similarly, some universities and other public institutions have committed themselves to becoming “anchor institutions” for the areas in which they are physically located, which typically means bringing a range of partners together and using their collective resources variously to support economic and physical regeneration, and to improve the educational and life chances of local residents—both children and adults (see, for instance, Harkavy, Hartley, Axelroth Hodges, & Weeks, 2013).

All these ABIs have three core principles in common which identify them as a distinct type of response to educational disadvantage. First, their efforts are located in particular places; second, they seek to do things differently in those places; and third, they seek to improve education outcomes for children and young people. Beyond that, though, they are characterized by considerable diversity. StriveTogether, for instance, might best be described as a model for “cradle-to-career” system development, while Promise Neighborhoods appear to be focused more specifically on addressing the disadvantages underlying poor outcomes. More generally, ABIs differ, amongst many other things, in terms of: whether they are instigated by central government, or by not-for-profit organizations, or by local leaders; whether they work across large geographical areas (for instance, city regions) or smaller neighborhoods; whether they have substantial additional resources or simply use the resources that are already available in their areas; whether they focus narrowly on educational attainment, or on a wider range of outcomes for children, families, and communities; and whether they are short-term, free-standing initiatives, or are part of more large-scale efforts to reform education and other services for children and families, and/or are seen as establishing new ways of working for the long term.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given this diversity, the research literature on ABIs lacks a shared way of describing, categorizing, or theorizing these initiatives. This, in turn, raises questions about whether, as a policy approach, ABIs represent (or might potentially represent) a coherent and theoretically well-grounded response to educational disadvantage—or whether, in practice, “ABI” serves more as a catch-all term for a somewhat random collection of poorly thought-through, largely short-term projects, which simply happen to take place in disadvantaged areas. Indeed, it may be that to meaningfully address these questions, it is necessary to make distinctions between ABIs with different characteristics, rather than to treat them as a homogenous policy approach. Historically, in England and beyond, ABIs can most commonly be characterized as government-led, short-term, school-focused initiatives. In a critical review of such ABIs, Lupton (2010) reflects the argument that these initiatives are area-based simply because they happen to have taken place in defined areas. In doing so, she usefully draws attention to the somewhat thin conceptualization of place on which most ABIs have tended to be based. Essentially, she argues, these types of ABIs have focused largely on schools and have used “area” simply as a convenient administrative vehicle through which to allocate resources and stimulate small-scale interventions. They have, however, failed to explore precisely what is happening in these areas to create poor outcomes for children and young people and how they might work to change these underlying processes:

The first striking feature of these policies as a set is that they failed to make it clear whether it was really places that they were targeting, individuals, or schools . . . One could argue that these are genuinely only area-based initiatives; that is they take place in particular areas, rather than being motivated by any concern with spatial processes per se.

(Lupton, 2010, p. 117)

Lupton is somewhat skeptical of the possibility that a different kind of ABI might emerge. However, it is clear that not all ABIs take the form of government-led, short-term, school-focused initiatives that have been the preferred approach of policy-makers in England. To take two examples, the Harlem Children’s Zone in the USA, which has acted as the prototype for the federal Promise Neighborhoods initiative, is a long-term effort to provide coordinated education, health, social care, and community development services to children in a disadvantaged area. The aim is to bring about a fundamental change in the community’s capacity to support the development of its children and, in particular, to enhance postsecondary education and career access and readiness (see, for instance, Nauffts, 2002; Tough, 2008).

Similarly, the One Square Kilometer of Education Initiative in Berlin and other German cities,

. . . strives to merge the efforts of local educational institutions in an educational alliance, in which the institutions jointly assume responsibility for the learning success of the children and adolescents and which involves everyone who can help ensure that no child is lost. This also includes the urban planning and development agency, health agency, and local associations. No single institution, no single person alone can solve the complex task of achieving educational equality for children and adolescents. The point . . . is to support an educational chain within a selected community, i.e. a continuous chain of support extending over a period of 10 years, in which the children and adolescents are accompanied through the different school levels.

(Freudenberg, n.d.)

Initiatives of this kind seem to be something more than simply an alternative way of targeting additional resources. They appear to have some sense that distinctive approaches are needed in the most disadvantaged places, that the processes generating disadvantage in those places go beyond schooling, that educational outcomes are inextricably bound up with outcomes in other domains, and that the total resources of those places need to be brought to bear in a holistic and systematic manner. It may be, therefore, that we need to think in terms of successive “generations” of ABIs (Kerr et al., 2014; Lawson, 2013) differentiated not so much by their surface features as by their capacity to engage with the underlying processes which shape outcomes in their target areas.

With this in mind, the remainder of this article sets itself three tasks. The first is to survey what can be learned from ABIs as they have emerged over recent decades. The types of ABIs that have dominated policy efforts and that have been best evaluated are arguably the kind of “first-generation” ABIs that Lupton’s critical account has in mind. In learning from their apparent strengths and weaknesses, the second task is to consider how ABIs might be conceptualized differently so that they can engage with the complexities of place, and to explore the theoretical resources that can be drawn upon for this task. The third task is to outline briefly some examples of what might well be a newly emerging generation of ABIs that embody aspects of this new conceptualization. In approaching these tasks, we consider that the apparent failings of previous ABIs may have more to do with how they have hitherto been conceptualized and operationalized, than with any fundamental difficulty with Smith’s basic rationale that local problems, relating to local area factors, may require a local response (Smith, 1999).

Evidence for the Effectiveness of Area-Based Initiatives

Given the diversity of ABIs in form and conceptualization, it is difficult to synthesize the evaluation evidence as to their effectiveness. The problem is compounded by the inherent difficulties in evaluating what are often complex initiatives in very open environments (Dyson & Todd, 2010) and by the failure of many initiatives to commission sufficiently robust evaluations. The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), for instance, is probably the longest-established and best-funded example of such an initiative in the world, yet it has not (at the time of writing) reported a robust, comprehensive evaluation. In the absence of such an evaluation, there are contradictions between its own claims to effectiveness (see, for instance, HCZ, 2015) and such narrowly-focused evaluations as have been undertaken. In the latter, evaluators have indeed found that there have been striking improvements in educational outcomes in schools serving the HCZ, but those outcomes appear to be attributable simply to changes in the organization and practice of the schools themselves rather than to the wider efforts of HCZ to support children and families (Dobbie & Fryer, 2009, 2011; Whitehurst & Croft, 2010).

There are similar ambiguities in the evidence from elsewhere. For instance, the ZEPs in France are long established (though they have been through multiple iterations and designations) and have attracted a degree of research attention. Yet there is little evidence that they have had a significant impact in reducing the effects of disadvantage on children’s educational outcomes (Bénabou, Kramarz, & Prost, 2005; Rochex, 2012). The case of England is particularly interesting in this respect, given that ABIs have formed a major plank of education and other social policy for many years—most notably during the period of Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 (Kerr et al., 2014)—and that many of them have been robustly evaluated. Overall, however, the tenor of this evaluation evidence is not encouraging. As one review of non-educational ABIs concludes,

. . . the widespread academic and professional consensus seems to be that in terms of their stated or implicit aims, they have all been rather unsuccessful. In Britain, for example, it has been concluded that they have neither significantly improved the social and economic position of those living in the inner cities and peripheral estates nor have they succeeded in delivering the hoped for economic revival.

(Cochrane, 2007, p. 4)

The picture within education is much the same. A study of the Education Action Zone (EAZ) initiative, which directed additional resources and flexibilities at groups of schools serving disadvantaged areas, argued that,

. . . the evidence to date suggests that ABIs continue to have limited impact and any benefits are, at best, patchy. With reference to education-focused ABIs, research on England’s EAZs, for example, shows that relatively few of the program’s original objectives were realized . . . Even in terms of attainment targets, there was little measurable improvement and in some EAZs there was even a negative zone effect.

(Rees, Power, & Taylor, 2007, p. 265)

However, the EAZ initiative was also notably under-specified; beyond the additional funding, there was little guidance as to what, precisely, might be done to tackle deep-seated problems of educational disadvantage.

By contrast, the Excellence in Cities initiative, which followed EAZs, was much more focused on ensuring that a number of particular, often single-issue, interventions (for instance, one to improve boys’ literacy skills) were put in place in targeted areas. It also appeared to achieve outcomes which were somewhat more promising; as its evaluators concluded,

. . . the effect of Excellence in Cities on the educational outcomes considered here suggests that educational policy can have an impact on students in their teenage years; such programs can be cost-effective; and resource-based policies can show positive results, even when the resources expended are relatively modest.

(Machin, McNally, & Meghir, 2006, p. 34)

There are a number of reasons that might be advanced to explain why the findings from different evaluations present a somewhat ambiguous pattern. Some relate to the strengths and weaknesses of particular initiatives—for instance, the lack of specificity in Education Action Zones as opposed to the clearer focus of Excellence in Cities. However, even the best-constructed initiatives, as they have operated in the past, seem to have failed to bring about transformational change for disadvantaged children. After all the area initiatives of the Labour period, for instance, the situation for such children in England was much the same as it had been a quarter of a century earlier (Wilshaw, 2012). It seems likely, therefore, that there are fundamental problems with ABIs as traditionally conceived. Regardless of how well-designed and -implemented particular initiatives might be, these problems persist if they nonetheless treat areas effectively as administrative “containers” for problems, into which resources can be dropped.

Two such problems can be identified. First, there is an evident mismatch between the strategies and resources available to ABIs and the challenges they are expected to face. As some critics have pointed out (Smith, 1987; Smith et al., 2007; Foden, Grimsley, Lawless, & Wilson, 2010), ABIs typically bring to bear relatively small amounts of additional resource, and in situations where far greater resources are already being deployed in existing services. As a result, they often deploy their resources in support of small-scale, single-issue interventions, and as an addition to service provision that remains essentially unreconstructed.

Moreover, they operate in situations where the macro-level forces and processes outside the area are far more powerful than those within the area in shaping outcomes. To take an example from the USA, Chicago is a city that has experienced multiple interventions to try to tackle its deep-seated educational inequalities, including school reform efforts and the development of community schools aimed at impacting on their local areas. These have had some successes (Bryk, Bender Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, & Easton, 2010; Whalen, 2007). However, at the same time, researchers—most notably, Pauline Lipman—have documented the ways in which global economic and ideological movements have exacerbated social inequalities in the city and have produced an education system that is grossly inequitable in its provision and outcomes (see, for instance, Lipman, 2004, 2011, 2013, 2015).

Not surprisingly, considerations of this kind have led some critics of ABIs to conclude that they are fundamentally misconceived:

In effect, ABIs are based on the view that social and economic disadvantage is a “residual” category, which can therefore be defined in terms of remaining ‘pockets’ of disadvantage in a wider context of increasing affluence. They do not acknowledge that, in reality, local disadvantage is a particular manifestation of the wider social inequalities which are endemic to societies such as the U.K. Far from being an exceptional feature of British society, which can be tackled by special state initiatives such as ABIs, areas of social disadvantage are complex, but normal manifestations of the characteristic patterns of social differentiation and inequality in the U.K. (and elsewhere).

(Rees et al., 2007, p. 271)

This misconception is closely related to a second problem. To reiterate, ABIs, even in the same country and initiated by the same government, can be designed in very different ways and look very different from one another. This may indicate appropriate flexibility to respond to local circumstances. However, it may also indicate the absence of any well-thought-through theory of action as to how, in a given context and in the face of overwhelming social forces, a necessarily limited area initiative expects to bring about meaningful changes in the lives of significant numbers of disadvantaged children. As the evaluators of the New Deal for Communities—a wide-ranging ABI in England with an important educational strand—observed,

. . .theories of change were often non-existent, or ill defined. Partnerships did not generally identify a set of evidence-based interventions which might plausibly change existing levels of disadvantage to desired outcomes over 10 years. Rather, projects were approved because of locally contingent factors: community demands, attitudes of agencies, and available match-funding. It was widely assumed that projects would help to achieve outcomes, even if the processes through which this was to occur remained blurred.

(Batty, 2013, p. 4)

In many cases, therefore, ABIs take the form of atheoretical assemblages of small-scale interventions. They are typically dependent on short-term innovation grants that take no account of the lengthy process of development that may be needed, and which make initiatives extremely difficult to sustain over time. They have, therefore, little real prospect of making sustained differences to children’s lives. Indeed, at their worst they may function simply as “displacement activities,” creating an illusion that the problem of disadvantage is being tackled, whilst in reality allowing inequitable social and educational systems to function unchallenged (Power, Rees, & Taylor, 2005).

Towards a Theoretical Rationale for Area-Based Initiatives

Despite the unsatisfactory nature of the conceptualization of many ABIs historically, there exist a number of well-established (and often empirically verified) theoretical resources which seem capable of putting them on a sounder footing and from which basis a new generation of ABIs can continue to develop. In this section, we will review some of those resources with a view to constructing a plausible theory of change on which future ABIs might be built.

Place Matters

Many past ABIs can be criticized because, in Lupton’s (2010) terms, they have been simply “area-based” without engaging fully with the spatial processes through which disadvantage is generated. In fact, theories of space and place have been given considerable attention across the social sciences in recent years. Indeed, there is talk of a “spatial turn” (Warf & Arias, 2009), and this has been accompanied by attempts to develop a “geography of education” (Butler & Hamnett, 2007; Taylor, 2009; Brock, 2013) which takes matters of (social) space and (physical) place seriously.

Perhaps the key conceptual shift in this development has been in the conceptualization of space. Hubbard et al. (2004) characterize this as a shift away from a view of space as,

. . . a neutral container, a blank canvas that is filled by human activity . . . this absolute or “empirico-physical” conception suggest[s] that space can be conceived as outside human existence; rather than playing an active role in shaping social life, it is regarded as a backdrop against which human behavior is played out.

(Hubbard et al., 2004, p. 4)

Instead, space can now be seen as “ . . . inherently caught up in social relations, both socially produced and consumed” (Hubbard et al., 2004, pp. 4–5). Drawing together concepts of space and place, it follows that places are not defined by more-or-less arbitrary boundaries drawn on maps, but by the social dynamics—people’s experiences, interactions, opportunities, constraints—that operate differently in different places. One way to think of this is to see different places as having different “social ecologies” (Kerr et al., 2014) in which people are shaped by the places where they live, and where those places in turn are shaped by people’s activities.

This new way of thinking about place—as physical and social, and as shaping people’s lives while being shaped by how people live—is important for ABIs for two reasons. First, it suggests that place cannot be ignored in essentially social enterprises such as education. Place matters for education in multiple ways—by having impacts on the people (including the families and children) who live in particular places, by giving students access to particular schools which then shape their opportunities and outcomes, and by channeling particular students to schools in ways which, in turn, shape those schools (Lupton, 2006). “Place blind” policies, therefore, which overlook the distinctive ecologies of particular places, will fail to understand how outcomes are generated or inhibited in particular places, and what kinds of interventions might change this state of affairs. This failure will include those ABIs that are devised without regard to the dynamics within places and differences between places.

Second, the notion of distinctive social ecologies offers an illuminating perspective on what can—and cannot—be achieved through local action. Because places are understood in terms of social process, there is no question of imposing an arbitrary boundary around a particular place, which is intended to define something entirely separate from its surroundings. The social processes at work within a particular place may well originate beyond that place, but they will nonetheless interact with and be shaped by other processes in that place. Similarly, locally originating processes will interact with wider social processes. The binary distinction between a targeted place and the rest of the world, therefore, makes little sense.

Instead, we need to think in terms of what is sometimes called “glocalization” (Roudometof, 2015), that is of the global being present in the local but of the local shaping the way the global is manifested. In terms of education, as Taylor (2009) points out, this means that educational phenomena can only properly be understood by employing simultaneously perspectives that focus both on particular places and on national, regional, and global processes. This notion of glocalization necessarily involves giving some ground to those critics of ABIs who argue that such local initiatives fail to acknowledge the power of the national and global forces that they would need to overcome in order to make a real difference to children’s outcomes. However, it equally involves acknowledging that, while the global may be present everywhere, it is not the same everywhere, that the local makes a difference, and that it might, in principle, be possible to intervene locally in ways which make a difference to how global forces manifest themselves.

All of this helps to explain why ABIs in the past have had mixed success, and what might need to be done to improve their effectiveness. ABIs are only likely to be effective if they define “place” in non-arbitrary ways, if they set about understanding the ecologies of the places where they seek to intervene, and if they understand how the global and the local interact in those places and what they may, therefore, be able to change. It is not enough for them to focus just on the presenting problems of particular places—poor attainment, or unequal outcomes, or high rates of school dropout. In addition, they need to understand and intervene in the underlying conditions—the “ecologies”—which generate those problems. From a policy point of view, it is also important that ABIs are not seen as the solution to problems that originate well beyond their target areas. Instead, efforts to tackle educational disadvantage and inequality need to take place at a range of systemic and spatial levels, from the institutional to the local, the national and, ultimately, the transnational (Ballas et al., 2012). ABIs are therefore best seen as potentially powerful interventions in local ecologies, nested within and supported by equivalent interventions at other levels.

Children’s Ecologies and Malleable Outcomes

The notion of ecology is important for understanding not just how places “work” but how, if at all, place-based interventions might make a difference to children’s outcomes. The challenge facing education systems (at least in the affluent world) is not simply that children’s outcomes are unequal, but that those inequalities have proved extremely difficult to reduce. Despite decades of sustained school reform in some countries, whatever improvements there have been have failed to overturn established hierarchies of achievement. As the European Commission notes:

Educational poverty, or the share of young people failing to reach minimum standards in education, is one of the greatest challenges in Europe today. Although education should level the playing field for all, opportunities and outcomes are still very much determined by people’s socio-economic and immigration background. As a result, no EU Member State has managed to bring underachievement amongst 15-year-olds with low socio-economic status below 15%. And in [some countries] over half of those with low socio-economic status are unable to solve very basic maths problems.

(DG EAC, 2015)

One explanation for this state of affairs might be that most reform efforts in recent years have focused somewhat narrowly on improving the perceived quality of classroom practice and school organization. Yet such a focus seems inadequate to addressing the wide range of factors beyond the classroom that shape outcomes (Strand, 2014, 2016; Muijs, 2010). As Muijs argues:

Even if we found all the factors that make schools more or less effective, we would still not be able to affect more than 30% of the variance in pupils’ outcomes. It has therefore become increasingly clear that a narrow focus on the school as an institution will not be sufficient to enable work on more equitable educational outcomes to progress . . ..Interventions will need to impact more directly on pupils’ environment and life chances.

(Muijs, 2010, p. 89)

However, this begs the question as to how it is possible to impact on children’s “environment and life chances” when education, which is probably the most powerful intervention in children’s lives by the state, has so far proved inadequate to the job. Ultimately, this resolves itself into something like the argument deployed by critics of ABIs: the forces acting to reproduce inequalities are far more powerful than the “puny” interventions that education systems are able to deploy against them.

It is at this point where the notion of ecology is once again helpful. Bronfenbrenner’s well-known ecological systems theory, for instance, sees children as developing within a set of interacting systems and sub-systems, an “ecological environment [which can be] conceived as a set of nested structures, each inside the next, like a set of Russian dolls” (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 3). Whilst Bronfenbrenner’s ideas are more complex and fluid than is often realized (Tudge, Mokrova, Hatfield, & Karnik, 2009), the concept of ecological systems usefully draws attention to the wide range of factors involved in shaping outcomes. While classrooms and schools are certainly important in this respect, they operate in interaction with a wide range of other factors—including family, neighborhood, and wider national contexts—which themselves interact with and shape each other. The causes of outcomes, therefore, are multiple and recursive rather than simple and linear, and it matters how the systems and sub-systems are characterized and configured within the ecology of each individual child (Lee, 2012).

The implication for ABIs is that interventions in children’s ecologies might, in principle, produce different outcomes. Interventions in schools have been tried extensively, with, as we have seen, mixed results. However, interventions in other parts of children’s ecologies are clearly possible. Parents and caregivers can be supported to parent more effectively, local economies can be developed to offer more and higher-quality employment, housing stock and the material infrastructure of areas can be improved. Not least, Bronfenbrenner’s notion of ecology assumes that the child is not a passive product of the processes about her/him, but is an active participant both shaping and being shaped by those processes. It is important, therefore, that children can be supported in exercising their agencies in ways that are ultimately more productive.

Intervention in children’s ecologies is, of course, very different from the simpler interventions that have tended to dominate educational policy and practice. This is not a matter of finding a single cause of poor outcomes (such as poor teaching) and acting to change that cause (for instance, by re-training teachers or making them more highly accountable). It is more a case of understanding the complex, recursive causal processes in children’s ecologies and acting to change them.

In the field of public health, this is sometimes characterized as a broadening of focus beyond presenting problems and their immediate causes in order to be able to intervene also in the “causes of the causes” of those problems (Braveman & Gottlieb, 2014; CSDH, 2008; Marmot, Allen, Bell, Bloomer, & Goldblatt, 2012). This is, of course, precisely analogous to intervening in ecologies of place, particularly since the ecologies of individual children and the ecologies of the places where they live are necessarily intertwined. The implication is that what are needed are forms of intervention which can span these intertwined ecologies, addressing determinants of outcomes within the child, in the child’s family, in the schools and other services and institutions which support the child’s development, in the neighborhood, and in wider societal processes. The need for such interventions seems to offer a powerful rationale for the continued development of ABIs, particularly if they can be nested appropriately within a range of interventions at different spatial and systemic levels.

Risk and Resilience

Considering how interventions might be designed in the future to support learning in “non-dominant” communities, Gutiérrez (2016) links the concept of ecology to that of resilience. Learning, she argues, takes place within complex ecologies, and for many learners, these ecologies face multiple social, political, and environmental threats that place learning at risk. Enabling learners to do well, therefore, means finding ways of building the resilience of their ecologies—specifically, of their communities—in the face of these risks. At their simplest, the notions of risk and resilience used here start from the observation that certain factors in children’s backgrounds (we might say, their ecologies) are associated with increased risks of poor outcomes, yet despite these factors, some children go on and do well (Bartley, 2006; Schoon, 2006; Jenson & Fraser, 2006). Such children are labelled as “resilient.”

However, resilience in this sense is not simply, nor even primarily, a psychological characteristic. It is a mistake to see it, as Ungar points out, “as something individuals have rather than as a process that families, schools, communities, and governments facilitate” (2012, p. 1) (emphases in original). Even where children are subject to significant risks for poor outcomes, other factors in their ecologies may act to protect them from those risks. Therefore, if poverty is a risk for poor educational outcomes, positive parenting, access to an appropriate role model, and effective teaching, for instance, may be enough to protect against the risk. This provides an explanation for why it is that not all children from at-risk groups go on to do badly.

Even in this simple form, notions of risk and resilience have much to offer to the theoretical foundations of ABIs. They suggest that ABIs might focus on reducing the risks for inadequate outcomes to which children are subject, and on building the protective factors that will enable them to become resilient in the face of whatever risks remain. This is important because it gives a clear purpose to the interventions which ABIs might marshal, but also because it focuses those interventions on building positive factors in children’s ecologies—what some might call their “assets” (Foot & Hopkins, 2010; Mathie & Cunningham, 2003)—rather than on the deficits which inevitably tend to be emphasized by problem-oriented interventions.

A Coherent Theoretical Basis for Future ABIs

Taking these theoretical resources together, it is possible to set out some robust theoretical foundations for ABIs. These initiatives are not—or need not be—unfocused, short-term interventions in arbitrarily defined areas, inherently incapable of making a real difference to children’s outcomes. Instead, they can be understood as interventions in the ecologies of places, where place is understood as a set of interacting social processes rather than as a point on a map. Since the ecologies of place interact with the ecologies of individuals within that place, ABIs are also interventions in children’s ecologies.

In order to intervene successfully, ABIs need to be able to range across all of the factors in those ecologies, which lead children to do better or worse. They need to be multistrand rather than focusing on one or another factor, such as the perceived quality of the school. They need, therefore, to develop a robust understanding of how the ecologies in which they are intervening work to produce better or worse outcomes, and their interventions need to be guided by these understandings—focusing not just on the presenting problems, nor even just on the causes of those problems, but on these together with the “causes of the causes.” Moreover, their interventions can be guided by the aim of reducing the risks to which children are subject and building their resilience. This is not only in the psychological sense of resilience but in an ecological sense where the focus is on developing those factors in children’s ecologies which protect them from risk.

ABIs of this kind are not immune from the operation of macro-level factors, which lie beyond their control and originate outside the areas in which they seek to intervene. However, they do not see such factors as overwhelmingly determining of children’s outcomes. Instead, those factors are seen as mediated by other factors in the ecologies of places and children so that poor outcomes are not inevitable provided that the protective factors in children’s ecologies can be strengthened. That said, ABIs alone cannot do everything, and they need therefore to be nested within interventions at other spatial and systemic levels if they are to be maximally effective.

From Theory to Practice

Whilst it is useful to have a theoretical basis for the ABIs of the future, our earlier brief survey of current and historical ABIs suggested that few have been grounded in this way. Nonetheless, there are indications that some more recent ABIs are beginning to work in ways that are consonant with the foundations we have attempted to set out.

We earlier offered the Harlem Children’s Zone as an example of a current ABI. Whilst, as we have seen, the outcomes of the HCZ are disputed, and whilst there is controversy regarding some of its methods (see, for instance, Fertig, 2011; Matthews, 2010; Otterman, 2010), there are aspects of the HCZ that hold out some promise. It is undeniably a multistrand intervention capable of intervening across a wide range of factors in children’s ecologies—schools, health provision, families, and community development. It is a long-term intervention, operating in something like its current form since the 1990s and with no evident end-date in mind (HCZ, n.d.). Moreover, it operates on the basis of a more-or-less explicit theory of action, which itself arises out of an analysis of the ecology of the place it serves. As articulated by Geoffrey Canada, the former CEO, the assumption is that improving outcomes depends on rebuilding the community, adopting evidence-based practices, and succeeding with increasing numbers of children so that a “critical tipping point” is reached (Nauffts, 2002). Although, moreover, no end-point is specified, the assumption is that “we will need to do less and less over time as other institutions and stakeholders in the community step forward” (Nauffts, 2002).

Something similar might be said about some of the attempts to develop an anchor role on the part of universities and other public bodies in the USA and elsewhere. Anchor institutions in this sense tend to be located in areas of high disadvantage, to see themselves as committed to those areas in the long term, and to regard themselves as capable of “anchoring” the development of those areas—which typically includes the improvement of educational outcomes (Community Wealth, n.d.). In what is probably the best known of these, led by the Netter Center at the University of Pennsylvania, we can again see all the elements of long-term ecological intervention, based on a more-or-less explicit theory of action:

Essentially, this idea extends and updates John Dewey’s theory that the neighborhood school can and should function as the core neighborhood institution—one that provides comprehensive services and galvanizes community institutions and organizations to help solve the myriad problems individuals and communities confront in a rapidly changing world.

(Harkavy et al., 2013, p. 526)

To this end, the university puts considerable effort into supporting local schools so that they can take on this extended role. This is not simply a matter of directing funding or personnel to the schools, but of putting the human and intellectual resources of the university to some extent at the disposal of the schools, and refocusing the university’s teaching and research efforts on “solving real-world problems in [its] local communities” (Harkavy et al., 2013, p. 527). Local schools, therefore, become the principal vehicle through which the university can become engaged in its area.

A final example can be taken from England, where the authors have been involved in the development of what have become known as “children’s communities.” Loosely modelled on the Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods in the USA, these take the form of groups of services and institutions coming together to develop a long-term strategy for improving children’s outcomes in disadvantaged areas (Dyson, Kerr, Raffo, & Wigelsworth, 2012; Dyson, Kerr, & Wellings, 2013, 2015). The communities are based on a set of principles that derive from the theoretical foundations set out above—a long-term commitment, interventions across a wide range of factors, and a strategic approach based on a robust analysis of the ecologies of particular places. The result is innovative practices and forms of organization which look very different from the short-term, scattergun approaches of many previous ABIs (see, for instance, Dyson, Kerr, Heath, & Hodson, 2016; Kerr & Dyson, 2016).

There is, of course, much work to be done to evaluate examples such as these. It is one thing to develop initiatives on the basis of a robust rationale, and quite another to ensure that the initiative in practice realizes fully the potential of that rationale. Nonetheless, these examples indicate that ABIs are not inevitably tied to their past. Educational disadvantage continues to be a stubborn problem for education systems in the affluent world. There is no doubt that many kinds of policy approaches have something to offer in tackling this problem.


In reviewing the field, this article has sought to make a conceptual contribution in articulating a new, robust rationale for ABIs as they continue to evolve. While it has shown that the current evidence for ABIs’ effectiveness is ambiguous at best, it has also shown that weaknesses in implementation and conceptualization may be as much to blame, as any more fundamental inability of local action to tackle educational problems. There are indeed powerful theoretical resources that can be drawn upon to construct a robust rationale for a new generation of ABIs. ABI leaders need to understand the processes that produce disadvantage within their target areas, and how to intervene in children’s social ecologies to reduce risks and build resilience. It may well be that ABIs cannot be—and should not aim to be—transformative in the sense of addressing the root causes of disadvantage at national and global level. Other policies and strategies are ultimately needed for this. Yet, this does not mean that ABIs cannot make a distinctive contribution as one element within a wider, nested, policy response to educational disadvantage.

At the time of writing, there are encouraging signs that a new generation of ABIs is emerging that is, in principle, capable of making this distinctive contribution. What is much less well understood is how, precisely, that contribution might be realized in practice. ABIs are complex, evolving, and subject to all kinds of political whims and changing contexts—and even when they are stable and well thought through and well-funded, they require complex evaluation designs in order to understand their impacts. Such designs, in turn, require significant funding and longevity, both of which may be hard to achieve. Quite simply, such complex evaluations of newly emerging ABIs have yet to be undertaken or publicly reported. Undertaking such evaluations presents an important future challenge for researchers in the field.


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