Heartwood Forest #kclfield Activities

Just this week our first year undergraduates had their fieldweek, with lots of geography-related activities across London. For the physical geography activities we headed up to Heartwood Forest, the largest new native forest in England (near Sandridge in Hertfordshire). A nice video from last year’s trip is below.

As you can see from the video, currently much of the ‘forest’ looks more like fields than what would be considered forest in Michigan, but the 600,000 trees being planted by volunteers will grow over the coming years to change that. There are three existing ancient woodlands (covering 45 acres) in the entire 858 acre (347 ha) area the Woodland Trust have acquired. Much of this area was previously agricultural land – the planted trees and newly created meadows will connect the existing woodland.

So there’s going to be some big ecological changes over the coming years as landscape changes. To keep track of changes in vegetation and animal populations volunteers from the Herefordshire Natural History Society (HNHS) have set up a monitoring group that regularly collect data on the growth of new trees, plants, mammals, birds and butterflies.

Similarly, some of the activities our first year undergrads undertook were to do ecological surveys of understory and overstory vegetation. Our students also did hillslope surveys and soil moisture monitoring, measured vertical wind speed profiles (to see how wind speed changes with height from the ground), explored the use of helium balloons and thermal cameras to make aerial photographs and other observations, and learned how to use global positioning system (GPS) units. The students seemed to enjoy the day at Heartwood, and the entire fieldweek for that matter, as you can see from their activities on Twitter (we use the #kclfield hastag to associate tweets with our field activities).

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Over the coming years we hope to expand our students’ field activities at Heartwood to our third year undergraduate and taught Master’s students. In particular, we hope that dissertation research by these students will be able to contribute to the efforts of the Heartwood monitoring group, to collect data and investigate questions of ecological interest. For example, to analyse presence/absence data for mammals like woodmice, we might use statistical modelling techniques like those I used to examine neotropical bird populations in Michigan.

It’s going to be very interesting watching and studying the ecological changes as Heartwood really does become a forest over the years. Keep track of the changes by visiting the forest yourself or via the HSNS website, the Heartwood blog and right here on this blog.

Lecturer in Physical and Quantitative Geography

Things got a bit crazy this month as I made the transition from my Leverhulme Fellowship to a permanent position at King’s as Lecturer in Physical and Quantitative Geography. I’m now Programme Director on the MSc in Environmental Monitoring, Modelling and Management (which I completed 10 years ago this month!) and preparing for of new modules on which I’m teaching this term has kept me busy. Specifically, this term I’m teaching on the postgraduate module ‘Methods for Environmental Research’ and the undergraduate modules ‘Principles of Geographical Inquiry II’ and ‘Current Research in… Ecosystem Services’ (which I taught last year also). So it’s been busy, but also stimulating to be putting thought into how best to communicate and illuminate ideas.

As part of the Intro for our new postgraduate students, and so that can find out more about the research that we do in the department, this week the Earth and Environmental Dynamics research group seminar series was given over to several short presentations by members of staff. The slides from mine is below.

Next month I’ll give a summary of the work I did during my Leverhulme Fellowship. For now, I just need to find some time for some research in amongst all my new teaching commitments!

Aspiration, Attainment and Success accepted

Back in February last year I wrote a blog post describing my initial work using agent-based modelling to examine spatial patterns of school choice in some of London’s education authorities. Right at the start of this month I presented a summary of the development of that work at the IGU 2013 Conference on Applied GIS and Spatial Modelling (see the slideshare presentation below). And then this week I had a full paper with all the detailed analysis accepted by JASSS – the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation. Good news!

One of the interesting things we show with the model, which was not readily at the outset of our investigation, is that parent agents with above average but not very high spatial mobility fail to get their child into their preferred school more frequently than other parents – including those with lower mobility. This is partly due to the differing aspirations of parents to move house to ensure they live in appropriate neighbourhoods, given the use of distance (from home to school) to ration places at popular schools. In future, when better informed by individual-level data and used in combination with scenarios of different education policies, our modelling approach will allow us to more rigorously investigate the consequences of education policy for inequalities in access to education.

I’ve pasted the abstract below and because JASSS is freely available online you’ll be able to read the entire paper in a few months when it’s officially published. Any questions before then, just zap me an email.

Millington, J.D.A., Butler, T. and Hamnett, C. (forthcoming) Aspiration, Attainment and Success: An agent-based model of distance-based school allocation Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation

In recent years, UK governments have implemented policies that emphasise the ability of parents to choose which school they wish their child to attend. Inherently spatial school-place allocation rules in many areas have produced a geography of inequality between parents that succeed and fail to get their child into preferred schools based upon where they live. We present an agent-based simulation model developed to investigate the implications of distance-based school-place allocation policies. We show how a simple, abstract model can generate patterns of school popularity, performance and spatial distribution of pupils which are similar to those observed in local education authorities in London, UK. The model represents ‘school’ and ‘parent’ agents. Parental ‘aspiration’ to send their child to the best performing school (as opposed to other criteria) is a primary parent agent attribute in the model. This aspiration attribute is used as a means to constrain the location and movement of parent agents within the modelled environment. Results indicate that these location and movement constraints are needed to generate empirical patterns, and that patterns are generated most closely and consistently when schools agents differ in their ability to increase pupil attainment. Analysis of model output for simulations using these mechanisms shows how parent agents with above-average – but not very high – aspiration fail to get their child a place at their preferred school more frequently than other parent agents. We highlight the kinds of alternative school-place allocation rules and education system policies the model can be used to investigate.

Modelling Spatial Patterns of School Choice

A couple of weeks ago I visited King’s Department of Education to give a seminar I entitled Agent-based simulation for distance-based school allocation policy analysis. The aim was to introduce agent-based modelling to those unaware and hopefully open a debate on how it might be used in future education research. This all came about as I’ve been working on modelling the drivers and consequences of school choice with Profs Chris Hamnett and Tim Butler here in King’s Geography Department.

Hackney School Admissions Brochure

In their recent research, Chris and Tim looked at the role geography plays in educational inequalities in East London. Many UK local education authorities (LEAs) use spatial distance as a key criterion in their policy for allocating school places: people that live closer to a school rank get allocated to it before those that live farther away. This is necessary because it’s often the case that more people want to send their children to a school than there are places available at it. For example, you can read about the criteria the Hackney LEA uses in their brochure for 2012.

Using data from several LEAs, Chris and Tim showed empirically how this distance criterion is related to school popularity. School popularity is indicated for example by the ratio of school applicants to the number of places available at the school (A:P) – some schools have very high ratios (e.g. up to 8 applications per place) and others very low (e.g. down to around one application per place). Furthermore, this spatial allocation criterion is an important influence on parents’ strategies for school applications, dependent on the location of their home relative to schools and their ability to move home.

These allocation rules, combined with parent’s strategies, produce patterns and relationships between schools’ GCSE achievement levels, A:P ratio and the maximum distance that allocated pupils live from the school. In Barking, for example, we see in the figure below that more popular schools have higher percentages of pupils achieving five GCSE’s with grades A* – C, and that these same popular schools also have the smallest maximum distances (i.e. pupils generally live very close to the school).

Empirical Patterns in Barking Schools

This spatial pattern can also seen when we look at maps of the locations of successful and unsuccessful applicants to popular and less popular schools in Hackney. For example, looking at the figure below (found in Hamnett and Butler 2011) we can see how successful applicants to The Bridge Academy (a popular school) are more tightly clustered around the it than those for Clapton Girls’ Technology College (not such a popular school).

Map of successful and unsuccessful applicants to two schools in Hackney

The geography of this school allocation policy, combined with differences in parents’ circumstances, suggests this issue is a prime candidate for study using agent-based modelling. Agent-based simulation modelling might be useful here because it provides a means to represent interactions between individual actors with different attributes (in this case schools and parents) across space and time. Once the simulation model structure (e.g. rules of interactions between agents) has been established, it can then be used to examine the potential effects of things like opening or closing schools (i.e. changes in external conditions) or changes in school allocation policy rules or parents’ application strategies (i.e. internal model relationships and rules).

I developed an initial ‘model’ as a proof of concept and which you can try out yourself. Things have progressed from that proof of concept model, and the model now represents changes in cohorts of school applicants and pupils through time, including the potential for parents to move house to be more likely to get their child into a desired school.

In the seminar with the Department of Education guys I presented some ouput from the recent modelling. I showed how the abstract model with relatively few and simple assumptions can start from random conditions to reproduce empirical spatial patterns in school applications and attainment outcomes like those described above (see the figure below)

School model screenshot

I also presented early results from using the simulation model to explore implications of potential policy alternatives (such as closing failing schools). These ideas were generally welcomed in the seminar but there were some interesting questions about the what the model assumptions might entail for maintaining existing policy assumptions and intentions (what we might term the rhetoric of modelling).

I’m exploring some of these questions now, including for example issues of how we define a ‘good’ school and how parents’ school application strategies might change as allocation rules change. These will feed into a research manuscript that I’ll continue to work on with Chris and Tim.