14 April 2010


Class divides our schools

An insidious mix of selection by ability, faith and postcode is wreaking havoc on the entire schools system.

Although the above newspaper heading describes the current educational situation in Australia, this was not a heading in any Australian newspaper. It is found in a UK Guardian article by Fiona Millar on Monday 12 April 2010 at, Monday 12 April 2010 16.30 BST


  • Fiona Millar


While the mainstream politicians in both the UK and Australia are determined to privatise the public education systems inherited from previous generations, there are those prepared to argue: ‘Wrong Way, Go Back!’ This lady is prepared to go behind the political spin and conflicting policies out in a crucial election year in both the UK and Australia. Supporters and defenders of public education in Australia can learn from UK mistakes before Gillard and her advisers slavishly follow, down to the hollow, to wallow in their glorious mud of obfuscation.

She writes about a recent report entitled Worlds Apart:

Ignore the headlines about a few comprehensives being more socially selective than some grammar schools. It is a red herring. Today's report Worlds Apart flags up, yet again, that after 20 years of education reforms most of our schools are still conspicuously divided along class lines.

The culprits are selection by ability, by aptitude, by faith and postcode. This insidious mix of overt and covert selection wreaks havoc on the entire system. Deflecting attention from one type of school to another, and then on to lotteries is an inspired way of distracting people from the real issues.

The Sutton Trust, co-sponsors of this report with the University of Buckingham, does much good work, but also has an abiding passion for grammar schools. It's founder Sir Peter Lampl clings to the notion that dividing children by academic ability at the age of 11 will increase social mobility.

Even the Tories have renounced that idea. However narrowing the public discussion to whether a tiny number of upmarket comprehensive schools have more middle-class children than some grammar schools, using data from the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index, which shows family income level and not just eligibility for free school meals, suits his argument well.

But read the report through and it is clear that schools which use the 11-plus test are still the worst offenders (after the private schools, which aren't mentioned at all) when it comes to social division. They take fewer children on free school meals and hoover up the most able students in any area where they still exist, ensuring the rest (often having failed a highly competitive entrance test) go to other local schools that have no chance of a real comprehensive mix.

Many other schools in those areas feel obliged to introduce some sort of partial, aptitude or covert social selection by faith in order to compete. And so it goes on, with schools being ever more subtly stratified by ability, class, race and residential geography as crafty parents also rent, lie and cheat their way into school places in the most sought after schools – the tactics for which are now well documented by the schools adjudicator.

Substitute ‘selective high schools’ for grammar schools and Fiona could be talking about Australia. The only difference is that England admits to a long history of class division, while Australia still clings to the egalitarian myth. But it is doubtful whether Julia Gillard is up to confronting Australian social and religious elitists in the way Fiona does. Our Deputy Prime Minister is only prepared to imitate the UK League Tables. But it will now be interesting to see whether her policy advisors, weeping crocodile tears about ‘disadvantaged’ students are even prepared to follow the latest ‘idea’ to come out of  the UK: The ‘Lottery System.’

The authors of Worlds Apart are clear. Forget about Swedish style reforms, they will only create more autonomous, own admissions schools and increase social segregation. And be sceptical about the idea of a pupil premium. No government will be able to afford the sums of money that will incentivise schools to take on the most challenging pupils, rather than the ones most likely to boost their league table positions.

Their answer is the universal use of lotteries but allied to all of the above so grammar school places would be allocated by lottery to children who pass the 11-plus, faith school places to children whose families pass the faith test and so on.

Lotteries do have the benefit of wiping out the cheats – there is not much point lying about your address or temporarily renting on the doorstep of a popular school if that doesn't increase your child's chance of a place.

But lotteries can only iron out inequalities if they are ability, class, race, faith and postcode blind. So before we talk about introducing them nationwide, let's go back to the root causes of social segregation rather than distract attention from them. That means reducing inequalities in society at large, dealing with poor housing and investing heavily in early-years provision for disadvantaged families.

So Fiona Millar finally ends up with something close to the DOGS position. The only way that education can cut across the class divide and reduce inequality at large is through a public system and public services which are free secular and universal. In the UK education it means ending academic selection once and for all (see here how it could be done), removing the right of schools to select by aptitude or run their own school banding systems from the School Admissions Code and ending the right of schools to select by "faith-based" criteria. In Australia it means, at least, a return to the days when only the public systems open to all children regardless of  class, culture, creed or geographical position were publicly funded.

Who knows, if these are achieved, placing children in a lottery of schools bouncing around in a barrel of league tables may just become a forgotten nightmare.





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