Schools as the driver of inequality – the ideas behind a talk given at the annual Class conference in London on November 5th 2016

Schools as the driver of inequality – the ideas behind a talk given at the annual Class conference in London on November 5th 2016

On education the left need to recognise public disquiet over our current system of allocation to state schools by area and hence by housing price. Simply defending comprehensive schools is not enough. The publication of school league tables that started in the early 1990s led to small difference in outcome by schools being magnified into large differences by 2016.

Many of those parents who could afford “choice” brought homes or rented in areas where the schools were doing slightly better than average. Poorer families were priced out of the catchment areas of those schools and what had often started as a small difference grew into a chasm dividing some towns and cities up starkly.

Parents growing increasingly anxious about educational outcomes also helped fuel the speculative bubble in housing prices in the South East of England and further afield. One social problem leads to another. Not publishing school league tables would be too little on its own to reverse the harm that has been done and the spatial divides that have grown over time between our children.

Encouraging schools to compete with each other further exacerbated the problem along with academy and free schools. The left needs new ideas as radical as comprehensive education was when it was first envisaged. It needs to recognise how housing, growing economic inequality and education are linked, not just through who can live in each catchment area, but in the high turnover of young teachers in the south of England.

We need to begin to change how we govern our schools and amalgamate their management so that teachers can work on more than one school site and economies of scale can be used to make it more and more rational for upper middle class parents not to use the private sector. We need our universities to begin to compete less with each other and work more closely with the people of the cities they are based in. So how can we begin to achieve all this?

Look for the antecedent models that could become the mainstream of the future. Long before the comprehensive movement was a movement there were a few comprehensive schools. Similarly today, long before there is any movement for a more cooperative ethos to education in Britain, there are already 800 co-operative state schools in the UK up and running today. And they are beginning to organise regionally with more plans in place for extending this in 2017.

What we do not yet have is a model of cooperation in a large town or small city in which all of the state schools begin to work together in a way in which it begins to make less and less sense for parents to worry about the school catchment area they live in and less and less sense to not use the state system for those who could afford to go private.

Financial crisis are often a large part of the impetus for progressive social change. The National Health Service was partly introduced because the middle class could no longer afford a private doctor by the 1930s. Comprehensive schools were partly so popular in the 1970s because the middle could increasingly not afford to use the private sector for their children who failed the 11 plus.

Today we have a financial crisis. State schools may need, as of necessity, to begin to share resources more, science labs, language teachers, sports fields. Why not then share the same senior management team rather than having two teams? Why not make our cities safer to cycle around so that we are happier with the idea of secondary school children moving between different school sites or going to different sites on different days?

For all this to begin to work we need to begin to adopt a more cooperative model of education. We need to realise that the school which records the highest proportion of GCSE results in the city is not an “outstanding school”, but almost always the school with the most expensive catchment area. And we need to understand that children who are very good at passing exams are not necessarily extremely good at anything other than passing exams. Britain needs a well-rounded workforce in future, not a set of adults keenly trained at exam technique, or made to feel inadequate because they were always a problem for their school.

Those speaking (in speaker order) are: Carys Afoko, Faiza Shaheen, Holly Rigby and Danny Dorling (2016) Schools as the driver of inequality, Class: Centre for Labour and Social Studies, annual conference, TUC congress, London, November 5th