Geography Geographies of Education
Johanna L. Waters
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0182


The “geography of education” represents an area of long-standing interest within human geography. Early scholarship in this area (which was notable from the 1970s onwards was primarily concerned with a number of key perspectives: social and spatial inequalities in access to education, differential outcomes for children of different social backgrounds, and the relationship between education, spatial inequalities, and social exclusion. In this work, formal education was seen as a potential enabler of social mobility, but, for various reasons (underpinned by geography), access to educational opportunities for the children of working-class and middle-class households was far from equal. Since around 2000, “geographies of education” (in the plural) has emerged from this tradition to become a vibrant and diverse field of inquiry. It now encompasses a markedly and increasingly broad range of interests, from social reproduction to critical pedagogies, neoliberal economic restructuring, and student mobilities. In some ways, “geographies of education” aligns itself with a far-older, more established subdiscipline of sociology of education, and yet in other ways it is quite distinct. Above all, research on geographies of education is interested in education from a geographical perspective. It recognizes that educational processes—from opportunities to outcomes—unfurl over space, differentially and relationally, with differential outcomes for individuals and groups. Some scholars researching the geographies of education explicitly align themselves with work on “children’s” or “young people’s” geographies, whereas others might be more at home within different subdisciplines, such as economic or urban geography. To date, work on geographies of education has tended primarily to focus on the education of children and young adults—very little research in geography has embraced the study of lifelong learning, adult education, or “continuing education”; for example, as work in sociology of education or educational studies has. Geographers have also, however, embraced a more expansive definition of what constitutes education, to study learning beyond the confines of formal educational spaces.

General Overviews

From the 1970s onward, concern with the geography of education (particularly in the United Kingdom) centered on questions of equity in access and outcomes, as is captured well in Bondi and Matthews 1988, a collection of essays from a distinctly geographical perspective. Though replete with social concern, work on the “geography of education” had a relatively limited intellectual remit, focusing primarily on social/spatial inequalities in provision and outcomes. As noted in Butler and Hamnett 2007, within the United Kingdom a key element of this was the publication of school league tables and an associated discourse of “parental choice.” Since the 1970s, geographers working on education were aware of the significance of residential patterns of social and spatial segregation and differentiation, and how these fed into the accessibility and quality of state education. A poor standard of schooling was seen to exacerbate social disadvantage in many cases, entrenching (rather than overturning) residential patterns of segregation and truncating life chances. For important and informative work in this vein, see Taylor 2009, Butler and Hamnett 2007, and Herbert and Thomas 1998. From around 2000 onwards, there has been a shift in the pace, volume, and reach of work in geography on education. “Geographies of education” is now a vibrant and fast-moving area of academic interest. Increasingly, this work is “strategically decentered and outward-looking” and “deliberately situates its object(s) of analysis relative to broader research programs (i.e., beyond the sector),” as stated by Claudia Hanson Thiem (Thiem 2009, p. 155). A review of the extant literature, Holloway, et al. 2010, identifies “a body of work that can justifiably be labelled ‘new geographies of education and learning’ because it is intra- and inter- disciplinary as well as increasingly international in terms of knowledge producers and sites of study” (p. 485). The authors emphasize the disciplinary multiplicity on display, the way in which research in geography on education crosscuts social, cultural, economic, and political subdisciplines, as well as demonstrating geographical diversity in terms of where knowledge in this area is being produced (beyond Europe, North America, and Australasia). Early-21st-century work on the geographies of education has explored the boundaries between formal and alternative learning. There is also a growing body of work—such as McCreary, et al. 2013—on the relationship between neoliberal ideology and transformations in education systems around the world, often resulting in struggles for power and meaning. In addition, there is a subfield of research on education focusing on transnational mobility, as outlined in Waters 2006 and in Raghuram 2013, and knowledge.

  • Bondi, Liz, and Michael Hugh Matthews, eds. Education and Society: Studies in the Politics, Sociology and Geography of Education. Routledge Series in Geography and Environment. London and New York: Routledge, 1988.

    A foundational set of essays that explores different (primarily social and political) aspects of “educational provision” through a geographical lens. These essays really set the tone of debate on the geography of education for the next decade and introduced those in cognate disciplines to specifically geographical perspectives on education.

  • Brock, Colin. Geography of Education: Scale, Space and Location in the Study of Education. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

    Provides a neat review of the emergence of the geography of education before discussing current developments with a focus on “fundamental geographic notions of place, space and scale” (p. 6).

  • Butler, Tim, and Chris Hamnett. “The Geography of Education: Introduction.” In Special Issue: The Geography of Education. Edited by Tim Butler and Chris Hamnett. Urban Studies 44.7 (2007): 1161–1174.

    DOI: 10.1080/00420980701329174

    This paper is the introduction to a special issue on geography and education and focuses on the political and policy dimensions of changing geographies of education in the United Kingdom, Europe, and beyond.

  • Gulson, Kalervo N., and Colin Symes, eds. Spatial Theories of Education: Policy and Geography Matters. Routledge Research in Education 9. New York: Routledge, 2007.

    This edited collection of essays, written by a mix of geographers, sociologists of education, discusses a nascent “spatial turn” in educational theory that at the time this book was put together was still “patchy” and occurring in “isolated pockets.” The book makes a compelling case for scholars interested in education to engage with the importance of “space” and spatial thinking. It draws on the influential work of scholars such as Doreen Massey, Edward Soja, and Henri Lefebvre.

  • Herbert, David T., and Colin J. Thomas. “School Performance, League Tables and Social Geography.” Applied Geography 18.3 (1998): 199–223.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0143-6228(98)00015-0

    In the context of increasing use of school “league tables” by UK government, the paper considers the important role played by “home circumstances” and “social background” in influencing “outcomes” for pupils in South Wales.

  • Holloway, Sarah L., Phil Hubbard, Heike Jöns, and Helena Pimlott-Wilson. “Geographies of Education and the Significance of Children, Youth and Families.” Progress in Human Geography 34.5 (2010): 583–600.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132510362601

    This paper makes clear links to Thiem 2009 and its calls for geographies of education to be more “outward looking.” This paper situates debates on education within ongoing work on children, young people, and families, arguing that geographers need to view young people as subjects, rather than as objects, of education.

  • McCreary, Tyler, Ranu Basu, and Anne Godlewska. “Critical Geographies of Education: Introduction to the Special Issue.” In Special Issue: Critical Geographies of Education. Edited by Tyler McCreary, Ranu Basu, and Anne Godlewska. Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 57.3 (2013): 255–259.

    DOI: 10.1111/cag.12031

    This is the introduction to a special issue on critical geographies of education, focusing on what a geographical analysis can contribute to understanding of “difference” within early-21st-century schools.

  • Raghuram, Parvati. “Theorising the Spaces of Student Migration.” In Special Issue: International Student Migration. Edited by Russell King and Parvati Raghuram. Population, Space and Place 19.2 (2013): 138–154.

    DOI: 10.1002/psp.1747

    Relates debates on student migration to parallel discussions of knowledge mobilities/flows. The key argument of this paper is that student migrants should not be seen as a distinct category but should be conceived as part of a broader appreciation of global and transnational knowledge migration.

  • Taylor, Chris. “Towards a Geography of Education.” In Special Issue: The Disciplines of Education in the UK: Confronting the Crisis. Edited by Martin Lawn and John Furlong. Oxford Review of Education 35.5 (2009): 651–669.

    DOI: 10.1080/03054980903216358

    This paper recognizes a growing trend in the number of geographers working on issues related to education. Like the collection by Gulson and Symes, this paper considers the impact of a “spatial turn” in education as running parallel to the interest of geographers in education. It calls for a productive dialogue to emerge between the two.

  • Thiem, Claudia Hanson. “Thinking through Education: The Geographies of Contemporary Educational Restructuring.” Progress in Human Geography 33.2 (2009): 154–173.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132508093475

    This was an important intervention in exchanges on the geographies of education that recognized the need for an “outward-looking” debate on changes to education systems internationally—one that was cognizant of the wider issues at play, and the contribution that discussions on education might make to “bigger” concerns with, for example, economic restructuring on a global scale.

  • Waters, Johanna L. “Geographies of Cultural Capital: Education, International Migration and Family Strategies between Hong Kong and Canada.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 31.2 (2006): 179–192.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2006.00202.x

    This is one of the early papers in a “new wave” of research on geographies of education to explore its transnational dimensions. In particular, the paper applies Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of capital (frequently alluded to in work on the sociology of education) to an analysis of an international education market. It focuses on the reproduction of middle-class privilege.

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