Figure 1: Absenteeism by level of deprivation, UK, 2004

Figure 1: Absenteeism by level of deprivation, England, 2004

The Guardian today reports that Britain’s top 50 state-funded comprehensive schools and academies have become more unequal over recent years, and are not reflective of the social composition of their surrounding areas, or of the remainder of the schools in England. Those of us from more equal societies might think this is not a big deal but the research is quite stark in showing very large differences between the schools and their surrounding communities. Of course, inequality in educational outcomes in the UK is stark and scary compared to other OECD nations, and to help digest this I’ve provided two figures. Figure 1 above shows rates of authorized (i.e. with parental request) and total absenteeism (i.e. including truancy) for small areas in the UK, by the level of poverty of the area; the further left you go, the poorer the community becomes. Figure 2 below shows GCSE achievement on the same scale. In this case, “deprivation” is measured by the Index of Multiple Deprivation, which I think is the scale for measuring poverty that is favoured by the UK Office of National Statistics.

Figure 2: GCSE Scores by level of deprivation, England, 2004

Figure 2: GCSE Scores by level of deprivation, England, 2004

School outcomes in the UK are obviously heavily determined by wealth. The Guardian report suggests that amongst state-funded schools this effect is most obvious in the elite schools, the comprehensives and academies. This, it suggests, is due to increasing income inequality in the UK, and because of the power of house prices. Basically, middle class families in the UK are able to buy houses in the catchment areas of the best schools, ensuring their children can access those schools. This in turn has the effect of pushing up property prices in those areas, forcing out poorer people and preserving the schools for the wealthier incomers. It appears that some of these schools have a policy of guaranteeing access not just on the basis of catchment area but on distance from the school, which guarantees that people with better purchasing power can push out poorer people.

The statistics about differences between school socioeconomics and that of the surrounding communities are pretty stark. They report that

uptake of free school meals – which is most often linked to parents receiving low-income benefits – was lower than half the national average: 7.6% in the 500 leading schools compared with 16.5% in almost 3,000 state secondary schools in England.

Just putting aside the fact that this suggests 16.5% of British families are too poor to provide their children with lunch, we can see that the communities served by these schools are, on average, wealthier than the rest of the country. They are also wealthier than the communities they are embedded in. Measured in terms of whether the schools enrol equal or higher numbers of students on free school meals as are present in the local community, the report found

only 25 also exceeded their local average, and they were well outnumbered by the 106 schools that had fewer than 3% of their pupils eligible.

Most of these elite state-funded schools were somehow managing to recruit on income, even though they are ostensibly open for all. This isn’t inevitable, and some schools have shown that it is possible both to recruit above-average numbers of poorer children and to have good academic results. For example, Chesterton community sports college in Staffordshire:

Chesterton college in Newcastle-under-Lyme has 22% of its pupils on free school meals, compared with its local authority average of just 9.8%. In 2012, 72% of its pupils achieved five good grades at GCSE, well above the national and Staffordshire local authority average of 59%.

This shows that in a good school, poverty is neither a barrier to access nor to success. So what’s going on? This Guardian article is citing a report by the Sutton Trust, which recommends some interesting solutions to the problem, including the use of lotteries or banding (basically, stratified random sampling) to ensure equal access (or, at least, better access). These are interesting ideas for short term solutions, but they don’t address the basic problem: massive inequality in British society somehow ensures that even with free-to-access services (like health and education), those with the assets manage to seize the advantage. The report makes this clear through one simple stark claim: some proportion of this elitism in state-funded schools is only possible because some parents are willing and able to move houses to be in the catchment area (and to push others out of that catchment area). People are required and willing to move homes just to get these superior education services. Should a good high school education be worth that much? Why are people moving homes to secure education outcomes? And should they have to?

I think this problem is driven by two factors: 1) investment in the majority of British state-funded education is so poor that people are willing to move homes to ensure their kids don’t have to go to some schools; and 2) the middle class in Britain now see their situation as so precarious that they are willing to make major asset purchase decisions (home purchase) simply to guarantee their children continued membership of the class they grew up in.  It seems to me that neither of these things should be necessary, and that there are alternative ways to manage society that would prevent these two situations – in my opinion, in a way that benefits everyone.

Increase investment in the worst schools

Looking at the two charts above, and considering the success reported by some of these elite academies, it’s pretty obvious that there must be some terrible schools in the UK, and some schools in serious need of extra investment. This won’t work by itself, since a lot of these areas need major cultural and economic change of their own, but better schools, and better teachers in those schools, supported in their work and properly able to deal with challenging students, will make a difference to the outcomes at those schools. It won’t completely change the phenomenon of rich and middle class parents fleeing to the state-funded comprehensives, but it will reduce the incentive as parents realize that attending a completely ordinary local school won’t kill their child’s future. I’m willing to bet as well that part of the reason poor schools in poor areas do so badly is a lack of educational diversity – no high achieving children, no historic record of achievement to inspire subsequent generations of students, and no reward for teachers to encourage them. If all these teachers have to look forward to is another year full of future criminals and children whose parents make no effort, then they will soon give up. And parents with any desire for their children to achieve will see that and move on. I’m also suspicious that the worst schools in Britain aren’t just educationally tatty: their facilities are, I’m willing to bet, also terrible, and the entire community lack pride in them. That can be fixed.

Increase attention on negative outcomes

Figure 1 shows rates of absenteeism in the poorest schools, but unauthorized absenteeism is something that police and social services can intervene in. Why don’t they? Because they’re dealing with other pressing problems. I think a lot of people in politics in the UK don’t realize just how pressing those problems are, or how much they degrade poor communities and depress the people living in them. Better attention on those problems, and greater efforts to ensure that the community in which children live is supportive of the learning needs of children, will in time lead to reductions in inequalities in behavior related to childhood delinquency – less absenteeism, less casual violence, less malicious fires, less vandalism. But there is no easy way to achieve this except through more funding: more funding for social services, police, teachers, council beautification programs, and activities for children. I don’t think any political party in the UK sees these things as essential state services anymore, and instead of funding these services they’re squeezing them, at the same time as they squeeze the general education budget and the welfare budget. While that happens, sensible people will take their children out of poor areas, making those areas more intense areas of community dislocation, reducing the likelihood that the existing social services will be successful in fighting the problems, and creating a vicious circle of social exclusion. I don’t see this vicious circle being stopped without concerted community effort.

Reduce the social mobility hard scrabble

Why is an education in Britain so crucial that parents will buy a new house in a new area just to ensure it? I think it’s because the middle class in the UK and US has become precarious, and a lot of people in that class are aware that their children risk falling out of it. Securing a position in that class is becoming a desperate struggle, with increasing numbers of losers who are falling out the bottom end of the class and into the increasing pool of poor and socially excluded. This is Ed Milliband’s “squeezed middle,” the middle class who in America and the UK have increasingly turned to debt and the housing “ladder” ponzi scheme to stay ahead of the Joneses. This race has to end, and there is a very simple way to end it: shift from a society focused on social mobility to one focused on social sustainability. I’ve written about this on my blog before: social mobility is a false promise of wealth and advancement, and a better alternative is to find ways to ensure that all jobs are socially sustainable. That is, find ways to ensure that even people at the “bottom” of the ladder can raise a family and live a halfway decent life, rather than having to scrabble up. In such a society education is still important, but because there is less urgency to achieve a ticket to success – because all careers are sufficient to support a happy life – education is not commoditized. Such societies exist, in Northern Europe and Japan, and to a certain extent Australia and Canada; and in these societies, people do not have to fight their neighbours to push them out of a precious school place. And if they do, the people pushed out will still grow up to a functioning life. The UK needs to move away from its competitive, inequalitarian social model towards these models.

Engage corporate power

A society built on social sustainability can only be built in two ways[3]: through a powerful system of taxes and transfers, or through a system in which corporations agree to some kind of social contract. Of course, in reality most such societies see a little of both, but I think a lot of thinkers in the anglosphere see social sustainability as only possible through the former, and I think they see it this way because they think corporations will not give up their wealth for a greater good, but need to be coerced into it. This is, I think, fundamentally defeatist. An alternative to a punitive system of taxes and transfers is a Japanese style system of shared corporate responsibility, in which companies pay their lowest staff a living wage, and don’t pay their highest staff stellar wages. Just because corporations won’t do these things of their own volition doesn’t mean they have to be forced to at gunpoint, but I think the natural assumption in the UK is that no one will give up anything without being forced to. That needs to change. In this respect I think Britain could learn a huge amount from Japan, which has a very strong social contract based around individual and corporate responsibility – something which I think a lot of British people don’t believe is possible.

I think Britain’s inequality is heading into a very bad place, and it’s not going to be an option to ignore it for much longer. It’s cruel, counter-productive and embarrassing. The huge inequalities developing in education can’t be solved just by throwing money at the poorest schools, though this is an essential minimum: changes need to be made in the way that the government tackles social disunity in poor areas, and also in the way that British society views “upward mobility,” competition and social sustainability. But with proper attention on improving schools in the short term, and a shift in social and economic priorities in the long term, Britain can reverse its inexorable slide into a failed state. Can they do it? I’m not hopeful, but I think it can be done.

fn3: that I can see. I think a third option is colonialism and theft of other nations resources, but let’s put that side for now.