The urban paradox

by Tracey Burns
Analyst and Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills

Our world is becoming more and more urban. Today, more than half of the world’s population live in cities, and this proportion will continue to grow. On average across the OECD, over 85% of the population will be living in cities by 2050.

The growth of cities is driven by hopes and dreams for a better life: large urban environments provide more educational and career opportunities, better access to high quality health and emergency services, and as well as a number of other positives. Yet urban areas are confronted with a paradox: they concentrate wealth and employment opportunities, but they can also host high levels of poverty and labour-market exclusion.  In addition, the agglomeration of workers and firms is often accompanied by negatives such as more tenuous social networks and disconnection from family and community, which can engender social alienation and violence.

Schools increasingly provide a sense of belonging and play the role of the immediate community and neighbourhood in urban areas. A just released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at the role of education in our increasingly urban societies.

First, the good news: the urban advantage in education is real. Students who study in urban areas scored on average 20 points higher in PISA 2012 than students in small towns and rural schools even after controlling for socio-economic status (which is generally higher in cities). This urban advantage is on average equal to half a year of schooling and is particularly large in countries like Hungary, Mexico and Slovenia which have high gaps in performance between urban and rural schools.

Why is this? The wealth of cultural opportunities and science institutions in urban environments expose young people to a diverse set of educational and career opportunities that are largely unavailable in rural setting. Such experiences can inspire, motivate, and challenge children and young people to achieve more. In addition, schools in urban centres are generally larger and more autonomous and might therefore be better able to allocate resources and retain qualified administrative and teaching staff.

However not everyone can benefit from these opportunities. Families with lower socio-economic status, immigrant families, and single-parent families are all less likely, on average, to be able to benefit from the urban advantage. It is thus important to address urban inequities that can undermine children’s access to quality education, such as unequal allocation of educational resources, lack of access to cultural institutions, residential segregation in major cities, higher concentration of single-parent families, and more disparate income levels. Only then can all students benefit from the opportunities unique to an urban environment.

The urban paradox is real, then. Along with increased opportunity come larger threats. In densely populated regions, poor social cohesion and rising inequality can lead to conflict and tension. Attempts to improve the security and safety of urban environments often rely on schools as a way to reach out to young people at risk. In addition to ensuring academic excellence, schools will continue to be called upon to strengthen bonds within the urban community by helping young people develop skills in non-academic areas such as tolerance, conflict resolution, and civic participation.

Similarly, schools have begun to take a more active role in promoting mental and physical health, and teachers are increasingly relied upon to detect students who are showing signs of withdrawal and alienation and to effectively model positive social behaviours.

However, there is a real question about the responsibility of schools in addressing all these important issues. Youth at risk are more likely to drop out of school before completing their studies, and can therefore not be reached by standard school-based programmes. Furthermore, teachers are already charged with an important educational mission that does not necessarily overlap with a demand for crime prevention and mental health approaches.

Who is responsible for what, and how can this all be balanced in our changing (and increasingly urban) world? This is not a new question, but it is becoming ever more important as we continue to become more urban and more diverse. As schools become microcosms of our progressively more diverse society, they have the opportunity to prepare children for our increasingly heterogeneous, more global and less locally connected world. Are our education systems ready for this challenge?

Trends Shaping Education 2013
PISA 2012 Results: Excellence Through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (Volume II)
OECD working paper: Urban Trends and Policies in OECD Countries
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo credit: Young boy in urban background / @Shutterstock

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