Inequalities in educational attainment across rural and urban locations
: Secondary data analysis of pupil outcomes in Northern Ireland

  • Gemma Cherry

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Research dedicated to examining the factors that contribute to educational inequalities is extensive, yet the factor of urban-rural location is rarely focused on. Using an intersectional perspective (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991) this thesis investigated the impact of urban-rural location on primary and post-primary pupils’ educational attainment outcomes in the context of Northern Ireland (NI). Given the lack of robust examinations of this issue, this study used a quantitative approach to address the absence of knowledge, incorporating secondary analysis of novel administrative data.

Multilevel (ML) analyses were conducted on data from primary and post-primary school stages to identify the impact of rural-urban location and to uncover where this factor fits within the complex web of factors already known to impact on educational outcomes. Post-primary data was derived from a record linkage exercise undertaken by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) in which the 2011 NI Census was linked to the School Leavers Survey (SLS) and the School Census (n = 61,373). Primary data was provided by Granada Learning (GL) assessment and represents the first data relating to primary pupils made available for research of this kind. These data afforded the opportunity to conduct a higher-level analysis than what has been done before by educational research in the NI context.

Pupils in rural locations are found to achieve higher attainment outcomes in maths and English subjects at both educational stages. While the results initially point to a universal rural educational advantage, interaction results provide evidence that this advantage does not extend to all primary pupils by suggesting that rural boys from lower socioeconomic positions are the most ‘at risk’ group of lower English attainment. Until now, this group of pupils had not been identified as in need of additional support. Results also indicate that the GCSE attainment of some groups of post-primary pupils is more strongly impacted on by location than others, for example, pupils from lower socioeconomic positions and those who attend non-grammar schools. The identification of these effects provides the first step in shaping educational policies and practices to promote equality in education by considering the role of urban-rural location.

Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorJannette Elwood (Supervisor) & John Moriarty (Supervisor)


  • Educational inequalities
  • secondary data analysis
  • multilevel modelling
  • urban-rural disparities

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