Dr Philip Cook, University of Leicester
As 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.
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.