Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Parallel classrooms

English education reinforces social segregation – but it does not have to, writes Ralph Scott

Last year’s referendum on membership of the European Union united the country in one way: it created a new consensus that our country is dangerously divided.

It did not take much polling analysis to see that the country was split not by left and right but by almost everything else: by age, ethnicity, geography, income, social class, and most profoundly by level of education.

Yet this divide is not just about which box we mark our ‘x’ in, it is social – about who we know, who we trust and who we socialise with. The bubbles we have created for ourselves. Think how many times you heard the refrain ‘but I do not know anyone who voted that way’.

At The Challenge, the United Kingdom’s leading charity for building a more integrated society, our belief is that the bubbles we live in are having a detrimental impact on our politics, the strength of our society, and our lives as individuals.

There is a substantial evidence base on the positive impact on bursting these bubbles and making contact across differences, for our health, job prospects and sense of wellbeing.

On the other hand, a lack of integration – which we understand as contact between people from different backgrounds – undermines the trust that underpins successful and strong communities.

Robert Putnam’s work suggests that people living in diverse but segregated communities tend to ‘hunker down’ – trusting neighbours less, feeling more negative about their local areas, and engaging less in civic behaviours (such as voting, volunteering and donating to charity). This in turn increases fear of crime and enhances the risk of civil unrest: the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel found that 71 per cent of the riots which took place in the UK in August 2011 occurred within the 10 per cent of areas of the country ranked as the least socially cohesive.

There is also emerging evidence to suggest that social segregation has an adverse effect on health: low levels of community trust can contribute to higher rates of cardiovascular diseases and of mental health issues among children.

There is, moreover, an economic benefit to social integration. The ‘strength of weak ties’ has been demonstrated again and again, with studies finding that access to diverse informal social networks can help people to find better paid jobs and that social segregation prolongs periods of unemployment.

But our own evidence, from the British Integration Survey 2016, shows that people do not mix with those from different walks of life, whether ethnicity or social class, and so do not have the opportunity to discover what they have in common and reap these benefits.

There is a valid question as to what we can do about this: it is not a legitimate aim of policy to tell people who they should be friends with. One option is through programmes designed specifically to promote social integration – such as those delivered by The Challenge.

But another option would be to desegregate our traditional public services, starting with the education system.

School segregation

Education is not simply about gaining knowledge and qualifications, fundamentally important though these are. It is also about socialisation and learning how to play a part in society.

In school, young people are forming bonds that will last the rest of their lives. Neuroscience suggests that young people are less likely to feel instinctive prejudice, so it is a good time for them to gain positive experiences of those they might perceive as different. The evidence from contact theory demonstrates that experience of difference at this formative age has a significant effect on future perceptions of those from different backgrounds, as well as other social attitudes.

However, repeated studies have found the English education system to be one of the most segregated in the developed world. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the UK had unusually high levels of segregation, with poorer and immigrant pupils tending to be concentrated in the same schools. Other research has consistently shown that schools are more ethnically segregated than the neighbourhoods they serve, and that this problem is particularly severe in London.

Given the importance of this to how well we live together, The Challenge has recently carried out original research on how representative schools are of their local areas, in collaboration with Professor Ted Cantle, of the Interculturalism and Community Cohesion Foundation, and SchoolDash.

We compared the latest department for education data on schools’ ethnicity and free school meals intakes with those of the 10 schools closest to them for the more than 20,000 schools in England.

In doing so, we found that more than a quarter of primary schools and four in 10 secondary schools across England are ethnically segregated, while almost a third of all primary schools and more than a quarter of all secondary schools are segregated along socio-economic lines.

There is also huge variation across the country. Between 2011 and 2016, some deeply ethnically segregated areas have become even more segregated (such as Blackburn and Tower Hamlets), others have stayed the same (Rochdale and Birmingham) and others have seen a marginal improvement (Bradford).

There are also some more surprising areas, such as Westminster, Peterborough and Reading, where ethnic segregation is an increasing problem.

In our research, we also broke down the results by different types of school, including grammar schools, faith schools, academies and free schools.

In a finding that will surprise nobody, grammar schools were by far the most segregated school type by income: 98 per cent of grammars had significantly lower proportions of poor students than other schools around them. It is no coincidence that those areas where secondary schools were most segregated by income – such as Poole, Southend-on-Sea and Reading – are also areas with existing grammars.

Faith schools were also highly segregated, particularly by ethnicity – although this is mainly due to an over-representation of ethnic minorities. This is particularly pronounced for Roman Catholic schools, which were three times more likely to have a low proportion of white British students than average.

There has been a lot of debate on the impact of academisation and the introduction of free schools on school segregation – however, we did not find anything as clear-cut as for faith and grammar schools. Instead, when looking at academy status of secondary schools, there was a clear division between the converter academies created by the coalition government – which take in far fewer disadvantaged students – and the sponsor-led academies created by Andrew Adonis, which take in far more, and no doubt reflects in some part their pre-existing intakes. Local authority maintained secondary schools and, perhaps contrary to expectations, free schools were generally representative of their neighbourhoods.

Promisingly, we also found that those secondary schools which were more representative by ethnicity tended to be better performing, as those rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted were more ethnically segregated, while those rated ‘outstanding’ were more likely to have a representative ethnic mix.

Equal not divided

We believe these findings provide the most accurate picture currently available of school segregation in England. What they show is a huge wasted opportunity for the school system – a universal public service – to provide the experience of social mixing that is so important to an integrated society.

And so our suggested course of action has three parts.

Firstly, in terms of the mix within schools, we call on national government, local authorities, faith schools and academy chains to consider the impact their admissions policies have on their intake and that of neighbouring schools. School governors should publish a clear commitment to this end and be required to publish details of their intake, comparing trends over time.

Secondly, and additionally, schools with highly unrepresentative intakes should also undertake ‘inter-school’ mixing, providing their pupils with the opportunity to interact meaningfully with young people from different backgrounds through shared lessons and extra-curricular activities, such as socially mixed sport leagues.

Finally, alongside these efforts, the government, local authorities, academy chains and school leaders should continue to promote the National Citizen Service and other ‘out-of-school’ social action schemes that have the express purpose of bringing together young people from different schools and backgrounds, in order to provide them with the experience of difference that is vital to an integrated and strong society.

To promote this approach to school integration, The Challenge has launched a campaign, ‘Equal Not Divided’, to engage schools and parents in thinking seriously about the issue and taking action to improve the mix in their school.

There are tremendous collective and individual benefits to a society that recognises we have much in common. Yet until our schools provide an opportunity for mixing, rather than reinforcing existing social divides, we will always be working to build a more integrated society with one hand tied behind our back.


Ralph Scott is research manager at The Challenge. Previously he was head of the citizenship programme at Demos. He tweets at @ralphascott



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Ralph Scott

is research manager at The Challenge

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