Each new administration tends to try to improve compulsory education by introducing a new and purportedly better type of school. The current government has at least three, and is pushing vocational schools, free schools, and especially converter academies – state schools with more autonomy. There is now considerable and not very subtle pressure for many schools to convert into academies.
But none of these various types of school has been satisfactorily demonstrated to be more effective than any other, given equivalent pupil intake. Some, such as Derby’s Al-Madinah free school, have even been labelled dysfunctional and threatened with closure. The expense of each of these new types of school and the disruption they have made to children’s lives and to their local communities have occurred with no gain in terms of pupil attainment.
Parliament’s Education Select Committee is now beginning an inquiry into academies and free schools.
Although any one of these types of school might be a good idea, the way they have been introduced is somewhat unethical. Instead of being tested fairly against the best that was already on offer, they have simply been introduced in double-quick time.
Neither have they been introduced across the country so that all pupils could benefit from these schools that are “somehow known to be better”. This would be the fair and ethical thing to do if the superiority of free schools were genuinely to be believed.
Instead, they have been introduced in a piecemeal fashion. And now more than ever before, the nature of the school any pupil attends is related to where they live. This exacerbates levels of social and economic “segregation” between schools, and so exacerbates divisions within society.
Segregation by poverty
The extent to which pupils with similar characteristics are clustered in schools with others like them can be described as “segregation” – whether this is intentional (as in faith-based selection to schools), or a by-product (as in selection to grammar schools by prior attainment).
This tendency to cluster can be measured. Here the calculations are based on the Annual Schools Census of all pupils in England.
Taking, or being eligible for, free school meals is an indicator of whether pupils live in poverty. The level of free meal pupil segregation in any area (nationally, regionally or locally) is represented as the proportion of those free meal pupils who would have to change schools if each school in the area was to have their fair share.
In any year, around one third of pupils living in poverty would have to change schools for all schools to have the same proportion of poor children, as the graph below illustrates. There are changes in this level over time and these largely reflect changes in the economy.
When, as after 2007, there is an economic downturn, the number of pupils entitled to free school meals tends to grow and this is linked to a slightly more even spread of such children. An exception to this is the decline in segregation from 1990 onwards, which runs against the economic cycle and is more strongly linked to an abrupt increase in school choice by parents.
The graph below illustrates how far the national system is from an even distribution of children living in poverty. The lower the lines running along the X axis, the fairer the distribution between schools is of children who qualify for free school meals. As it is, the height of the lines on the graph show that around one third of poor children would have to change school (to a school with a lower level of free school meals) to create a national school system with a perfectly balanced intake.
Segregation by free school meals, all schools, England, 1989-2012
The causes of segregation
Apart from these changes, the actual underlying level of free meal segregation (around 30% nationally) is relatively stubborn, and it has a number of causes. Partly it is due to the geography of the area surrounding each school, transport facilities, and the nature of the local population. However, the single largest educational determinant of segregation is the diversity of local schooling.
Those authorities that have mostly retained “bog-standard” community schools have a much fairer mix of pupil intakes. Those with grammar schools, faith-based schools, academies and especially those with academy converter schools have much higher levels of segregation.
For example, Trafford in the North East is an area with one of the highest levels of local segregation between schools because it retains a grammar school system. Shropshire, on the other hand, has a much lower level of segregation and has so far retained a clear majority of comprehensive schools maintained by the local authority.
Similarly, areas that have embraced academies also have much higher levels of local between-school segregation. In fact, there is a high correlation between local segregation by poverty and the number of converter academies in the area. Some of the new free schools have no pupils eligible for free school meals at all! In that respect, these new types of school are linked to as much social segregation as the entirely selective grammar schools.
Why it matters
This unintended clustering of students within schools matters a great deal. A school’s mix of students influences how they are treated, how well they are taught, how well they learn, the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, wider school outcomes such as students’ sense of justice, and longer-term outcomes such as levels of aspiration.
Clustering disadvantaged students together in selected schools simply does not work, and is all pain with no discernible gain. It is also easily avoidable. But the current policy on schooling seems determined to widen the poverty gradient, destroy the national nature of schooling and so make it matter more and more where any pupil lives.