The Disgrace of Our Segregated School System

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Graham Birrell considers the pedagogical consequences of the segregation of British schools and asks whether it’s time to radically rethink school admissions.

We have one of the most stratified and segregated school systems in the developed world…far, far too many young people are being robbed of the chance to shape their own destiny. It is a moral failure; a tragic waste of talent; and an affront to social justice. We need nothing short of radical, whole-scale reform.


funnelWho said this? Some lefty member of the educational establishment? One of the blob? No, it was the former Secretary of State for Education himself, Michael Gove. And he was absolutely right; Britain’s school system is astonishingly segregated. Leaving aside the fact that 7% of our children are taught in private schools (only Korea spends more on private education in the OECD), the level of segregation within the state sector, most particularly by poverty and social class, is ‘an affront to social justice’ and we do ‘need nothing short of radical, whole-scale reform.’

Where Michael Gove and I part though, is on the solution to the problem.

There is plenty of research on the extent of segregation in our schools, but a good summary was provided by the Sutton Trust in 2010 who found that the most deprived comprehensives have sixteen times as many children from disadvantaged backgrounds as the least deprived. The Trust found that schools with advantaged intakes were less likely to have pupils on free school meals (FSM) than their local community and vice versa. An earlier 2006 Sutton Trust report identified the ability to choose your own admissions criteria as a significant factor in causing this and you also won’t be surprised to hear that they linked schools’ outcomes to their differences in intakes.

If you want to see the level of segregation in your own local schools, the DfE have made it extremely easy to find out. Simply go to the performance tables section of their website (dubbed ‘Gove Compare’), type in your postcode and define the size of the area you want to analyse. I did this for three, randomly selected, local towns’ primary schools and this is what I found for their three schools with the highest and lowest levels of pupil deprivation:

Town Average percentage of pupils with FSM in the three most deprived schools Average percentage of pupils with FSM in the three least deprived schools
Town A 45% 7%
Town B 53% 7%
Town C 42% 7%

If this segregation were by race there would be a national outcry, but because it is by class and poverty, it appears to generate almost no opposition whatsoever. So if it doesn’t appear to cause much anxiety amongst the general population why is it such a problem?

I don’t actually propose to discuss the moral arguments, which I believe speak for themselves in decrying a situation where we teach children from different backgrounds in different settings; I also don’t want to get into the academic debate as to whether segregation affects overall standards of education – although it’s clear that middle class parents across the country believe it does, hence their desperation to get their kids into the ‘right school’. Instead I’d like to focus on segregation’s effect on teaching and finish with a proposal for how we might begin to end it.

The point about segregation and teaching is this: the more you congregate children from similar backgrounds together, the more likely it is that you will provide different pedagogical diets to each.

In 2008, the American journalist David Whitman, who became chief speechwriter to US Secretary of State for Education Arne Duncan, wrote a much-lauded book called ‘Sweating the Small Stuff’, a celebratory analysis of six US schools who teach children from predominantly challenging backgrounds. He said that the achievement gap could be narrowed if ‘poor minority kids are given the right kind of instruction.’ By that, he said he meant: ‘rigorous academic’ approaches, frequent testing, strict dress codes,  extended school days, summer school, but ‘above all’ paternalistic schools, which he defined as a:

highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. These paternalistic schools go beyond just teaching values as abstractions: the schools tell students exactly how they are expected to behave, and their behavior is closely monitored, with real rewards for compliance and penalties for noncompliance.

The American Educationalist Alfie Kohn has rightly described these kinds of approaches as ‘poor teaching for poor children’. But this isn’t just an American idea and these approaches are growing in popularity here as ways to teach and educate children in schools with disproportionately deprived intakes. A good example is an approach called ‘SLANTing’ which stands for ‘Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod to show you are listening, Track the speaker with your eyes’. S, L and A are perfectly reasonable, but N and T for me turn this in to the educational equivalent of The Stepford Wives.

To anyone familiar with the work of Jean Anyon, none of this will come as a surprise.  Over thirty years ago she identified five types of schools, ranging from ‘Working-Class Schools’ with high levels of deprivation, which were procedural, mechanical and relied on direct, rote teaching methods with very little choices for pupils; to ‘Affluent Professional Schools’ with very low levels of deprivation, where creativity and independence were fostered, students’ opinions and ideas valued and where originality and individuality was prized.

Children from deprived backgrounds are therefore at serious risk of being given the kind of education middle class parents run a mile from: controlling, homogenising, directive and demeaning; where thinking differently gets you singled out instead of singled in. This is something we should all be concerned about.

So how did the segregation in our school system come about? The answer to that is choice and your ability to exercise it. Whether you choose your school through house purchases or through careful navigation of admissions procedures, the evidence strongly suggests families with financial and social capital are able to congregate together, leaving ‘sink schools’ to families without the means to get ahead.

And how do you solve segregation and its subsequent inequality? There are no easy or ideal answers, but the best solution is to replace parental choice with lotteries. This would absolutely not be a panacea and extremely careful processes would need to be followed, but at a stroke it could dramatically reduce segregation in our schools. Parents would take a great deal of convincing and for some it could raise the spectacle of things like bussing policies à la the USA in the 1960s, but let’s not deceive ourselves on issues like this as ‘bussing goes on in a big way now. The difference is that this bussing occurs in people carriers, not big yellow school buses.’ (Burgess et al, 2006)

More than almost any developed nation ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable county. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.

Once again, I couldn’t put it better than Michael Gove. But instead of addressing that inequality, polices of more choice and more competition between schools is only likely to make segregation worse. It’s time we started looking at truly radical solutions.

A version of this article was first published in Teach Primary Magazine.

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One Response to The Disgrace of Our Segregated School System

  1. Edna Elegbede Monday, 25 January 2016 at 04:08 #

    I found this particularly interesting and remember studying about this. Although I think it is true that children from more disadvantaged background tend not to do as well as children from more affluent backgrounds, I do not believe that it is right for children from deprived backgrounds to still have to deal with having a ‘second-class’ type of education. What problems do we think we will be solving by doing this? This doesn’t make the situation any better, it just creates an even bigger downward spiral allowing more and more generations to come have a lower standard of education which then lowers their chances of competing with them later on in life.