Comprehensive Schools are Fundamental to an Integrated Civil Society

Dr Philip Cook, University of Leicester

Dr Philip Cook, University of LeicesterAs Michael Gove celebrates the opening of the first free schools, the question of what kind of school we owe our children has never been more divisive. For some, the opportunity for parents to create new schools will increase competition so that successful schools will flourish and poor schools will be forced to improve or close. For others, free schools will divert desperately needed resources away from existing schools, where the children of parents less interested or able to choose successful schools will languish. Despite appearances to the contrary, all parties to this debate agree fundamentally on the kind of school we should provide to our children: schools which deliver the best possible education to all children. But we cannot answer the question of what kind of school we owe children simply by asking which kind of school delivers the best education. We certainly do owe all our children the best possible education, but we owe them schools that provide more than an education. We owe all our children schools which are integrated and not segregated. Segregation in schools, whether by ability, religion, race, parental income, or language harms us all. Segregation is unfair, inefficient, and an offense against democracy. Different kinds of schools may provide a better or worse education, but only one kind of school provides for a fair and democratic society: a comprehensive school.

Opponents of comprehensive schools claim they delivered a worse education than grammar schools, which in turn reduced social mobility. The facts of the matter are unclear: many have taken a recent report for the Sutton Trust to show that the change from grammar to comprehensive schools made it harder for bright but poor children to enjoy a better quality of life than their parents; however this interpretation of the research is contested. The effect of free schools on educational outcomes is similarly uncertain, as shown in research on the pioneering Swedish free school system where the benefits are slight, if present at all. But to judge a type of school on its educational outcomes only is to fail to recognise a crucial aspect of schools: that they are civic as well as educational institutions. In fact, schools have a rather limited effect on children’s educational performance. The attention of parents to a child’s development, through time spent on activities such as reading and conversation, has a far more powerful influence on their child’s educational attainment than schools and teachers. A particularly important role of the parent is choosing the peer-group of their child: friends, mentors, and exemplars influence children’s educational attainment particularly strongly. The importance of peer-group effects of children is common sense to most parents who try to avoid their children ‘getting in with the wrong crowd’, and promote friendships with other children who exercise a positive effect on their child’s development.

Whilst teachers and lessons may have a marginal effect on a child’s educational attainment, the company a child keeps in school will affect them enormously. Selective schools create distinctive peer-groups, and are attractive to parents as much for the quality of the friends their child will have as the quality of the teaching or facilities. Whilst new free schools cannot adopt selective admissions policies, the proliferation of new schools will increase choice, which will allow parents themselves to become more selective about their children’s school. The entitlement of parents to choose schools, even selective schools, follows in part from parents’ right to choose peer-groups for their children.

However, even if free schools and school choice had unquestionably positive benefits on education, the process of creating choice would promote segregation between children and families. Some schools segregate explicitly on the basis of intellect (such as grammar schools), or religion (such as many voluntary aided schools), or language (such as Welsh medium schools), or income (such as many fee-paying independent schools). But if school choice can promote educational excellence, what is wrong with the segregation that can follow from school choice?

The segregation that follows from selection and school choice is wrong because it harms all members of society. Most obviously it inhibits the mutual understanding and respect of children as they develop into adult citizens. Whilst privately and selectively educated children may gain educational advantages through the effective choice of their parents, all children will lose out on the opportunity to interact, listen, and learn from others in very different circumstances. When the time comes for all these children to vote on important economic and social matters, the lack of experience and information they have about the lives of others will inhibit good democratic choice. Thus segregation is inefficient for democracy. Equally importantly, segregation encourages individuals to identify themselves and others according to the features selected for. If schools segregate on the basis of religion, ability, class, or language then these qualities become an important basis for self-understanding, and a prism through with others are perceived and evaluated. Thus our shared identity as citizens and members of the same polity fades into the background; our ability to treat all other citizens with respect and recognition because they are fellow-citizens is undermined. Thus segregation dissolves bonds of equal civic respect and recognition. The dissolution of bonds of equal respect and recognition harms us all, because segregation fosters division and disrespect, which threatens civic comity and tranquillity.

The best arguments for comprehensive schools are therefore not based on the disadvantages of selection for educational outcomes or the positive effects of comprehensives on social mobility. The best arguments for comprehensive schools are rather based on the harms of segregation and the value of integration. But if we all accept that education is of fundamental importance to the life chances of children, and if we accept that school choice is a parental right and advantageous to educational attainment, what role do comprehensives have in our school policy? How can we reconcile the seemingly conflicting demands of educational excellence, parental rights, and social integration?

The first step is to recognise the two different values at stake in schools policy: the value of education and the value of civic integration. As we become more attuned to distinguishing these two roles and values in school policy, we can become more creative about pursuing the value of education beyond the school. As discussed above, schools have a limited direct effect on educational outcomes. Support for the educational environment in the home through grants for books and other learning materials may be important. The value of integration is far harder to promote however: even proponents of comprehensive schools must accept that the policy failed to provide truly inclusive school communities in many parts of the country where school choice was available to parents. It is insufficient to simply label a school comprehensive, and to insist that it exercise non-selection in admissions, for it to be truly inclusive. In a world where we respect parents’ right to choose, and permit selective or private schools, we need affirmative action to promote integration and mitigate against segregation. The coalition government is beginning to implement such affirmative action policies through the pupil premium, which will act as an incentive for affirmative action by free schools to include children from poorer families. But the government must go further to ensure both education and social integration are promoted. Free schools and selective schools should be disallowed from setting their own catchment areas, as this can easily create and reinforce segregated school communities. Catchment areas are as important as constituency boundaries to the inclusiveness of a civic polity, and should be regulated similarly. All schools in a broadly inclusive local area should also have incentives for affirmative action, where selective and non-selective, state and private schools can exchange teachers and pupils and create inclusive shared projects which strengthen bonds of civic respect. Recent projects such as the ‘Time Schools’ in South Wales, where the whole community engages in the life of the school, provide a model for how schools can act as a catalyst for civic inclusion. Schools are for far more than simply delivering education. They are civic institutions which should promote inclusion. A just school is a comprehensive school. Segregation in schools is a stain on the very fabric of our society as it harms our interests in a prosperous and fair civil polity.  I invite all those who are parents, all those who care about excellence in education, and all those who care about a healthy harmonious civic society to contribute to the debate in the comments section below.

Video Interview

Dr Philip Cook interviewed at the Leicester Exchanges live debate ‘Comprehensive school education: policy mistake, lost ideal or model for the future?’ held on Wednesday 21 September 2011 at Glaziers Hall, London.

Dr. Philip Cook is a Lecturer in Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations. Dr. Cook’s research focusses on children and social justice, and his work on justice in schools and education was supported by an ESRC Grant. Dr. Cook participated in the Leicester Exchanges debate on ‘Comprehensive Schools: Policy Mistake, Lost Ideal, or Model for the Future’ on 21st September at Glazier’s Hall, London. You can read his reflections on this debate.


  1. Rural Retreat
    Posted 16/09/2011 at 18:44 | Permalink

    I don’t disagree with this: “The best arguments for comprehensive schools are rather based on the harms of segregation and the value of integration.”

    Except when it comes to ones own children.

    I agree with corporal punishment. But would be completely p*ss*d off if a teacher caned my kids.


    John Major Reply:

    I was completely p*ss*d off when I was canned by teachers, especially when it was some trivial matter. In the end I had to tell them I wasn’t having any of it. They were most upset an threatened to expel me before the exams. A few strong words from my father soon put a stop to that. When word went around the school that you could refuse to be canned it had to be abandoned and discipline improved for a few months. This was 1968 and it was the only revolution that succeeded that year.


  2. Chris Williams
    Posted 08/09/2011 at 21:20 | Permalink

    “Segregation in schools, whether by ability, religion, race, parental income, or language harms us all.”

    What about sex?

    It used to be that the boys did better than the girls because, amongst other factors, the male teacher favoured them in the classroom in co-educational schools. In single sex schools, girls were taught in a way that suited them and boys in a way that suited them. I went to a single sex secondary school and the only drawback was that girls were a mystery.

    I mentioned this to my son who went to a co-ed and he said, “Dad, there is no mystery. You don’t understand them and I don’t understand them. But the great thing is that they don’t understand us or we would all be in trouble”.

    So, it seems there are no drawbacks to single sex education. Perhaps that is the only segregation we need.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Thanks very much for your comment. You pinpoint a really interesting issue, one that in many ways highlights the nub of the problem I’m working through.

    You are quite right that there is some evidence to suggest that segregation by sex can have positive benefits on educational outcomes. However, I am interested not only in the effect of schools on educational outcomes (which is of course extremely important in a whole host of ways), but also of the effect of schools on social cohesion.

    Parts of our society are very segregated on racial and religious lines (for an extreme example of the latter think of Northern Ireland of course). Schools often reinforce such segregation which can lead to many problems and disadvantages to our whole society.

    Parts of our society are also segregated on gender lines too: think of continued lack of partity between pay for women and men, and the lack of opportunities for women to rise to the most senior positions in business and industry for example. Even if it is the case that some kind of streaming according to gender would improve educational outcomes for boys and girls, there is an important moral argument from the value of inclusion and social cohesion to ensure that boys and girls learn to live and cooperate alongside each other in a school community.

    My own view is that if segregation by gender is shown to be of educational benefit to both boys and girls, then we should create mixed-gendered schools but perhaps have streaming by gender within the schools for certain subjects whilst mixed-gendered activities to promote cohesion. Thanks again for your comments.


  3. Jackson
    Posted 07/09/2011 at 12:53 | Permalink

    I don’t have a problem with free schools if they genuinely create the choice and value for all people that their supporters claim. I think the jury is still out on that and we need to watch closely that free schools are the liberating experience their proponents claim they will be, and don’t simply entrench existing privilege.


    Philip Cook Reply:

    Thank you for your comment. It is very sensible to keep an open mind at this stage and to see how the facts emerge. The question of whether free schools will entrench existing privilege or liberate children is absolutely central.

    As I argued above, segregation and selection can be harmful and unjust, and not just because of its effect on educational outcomes, but because of its effect on the cohesion of our civil society. So a key development to watch closely is the Government’s review of the admissions code (for info on the review see

    Will the government allow greater scope for selection by schools (whether explicit or ‘by the back door as some claim’), or will the new code promote integration?


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