School Choice leads to greater inequality

Given the huge levels of support behind the Make Poverty History campaign, some have claimed to detect renewed public interest in social issues. Yet that sentiment has always been there, it just needs a clear, public centre to coalesce around.

Take the issue of poverty in Britain. Research suggests that people are heavily behind the government’s target to end child poverty by 2020 – once they know about it that is. The problem is that it seems to have an astonishingly low public profile for such an important policy.

Victor Adebowale HPWhile lifting 700,000 children above the poverty line is a huge accomplishment it is still below target. Rather than castigating government for missing their goal, we need to be pushing and supporting them with fresh policies to make the same change for the remaining 3.6 million children.

The network of initiatives from Sure Start to education action zones and family tax credits have got us this far but they won’t be enough to get us all the way. In fact, New Labour’s welfare to work initiatives have managed to dramatically slow the rate at which inequality is growing within the UK, but they have yet to start to reverse that trend.

I believe that the kind of schooling we get is central to reversing the growth in inequality. Education is a subject much on my mind at the moment with the Education Bill heading towards the Lords and my own son just about to start secondary school.

Unfortunately, school can be an enormous driver of inequality. Some parents can afford to buy their way into good schools, either in the private sector or by paying the house price premium associated with the right catchment areas.

Meanwhile, confidence in state education seems to be dwindling – I was shocked when fellow parents told me they wouldn’t be sending their son to the same state school as mine because “they didn’t want him coming back with bad habits”.

It seems that the shared and good quality state education both children have enjoyed until now counts for nothing when faced with the spectre of secondary school.

Unfortunately, I can’t see the Education Bill either reducing the inequality or the boosting faith in the system. Its supporters claim that parent choice will drive up efficiency and force poor schools to change.

Yet for this to happen the threat of parents switching schools (taking the funding with them) has to be genuine. In many of our schools, particularly in the most deprived areas, I don’t believe that capacity exists either in terms of available places or, more importantly, through the number of motivated, well-trained teachers.

The fears about admission policies and “cream skimming” should be taken seriously. If there is one clear lesson from the international evidence on school choice it is that overt or covert selection by schools sees the gap between rich and poor increase dramatically.

It is also important to remember that as a headmaster, if you’re looking for a lever to help drive up your performance then admission policies and exclusion policies give you the greatest impact on results. The quality of teaching takes much longer to bed in and show up in the league tables.

So how does all of this tie together? It is either a vicious or virtual circle, depending on where you’re born and who you’re born to (with the colour of your skin all too often playing the determining role).

Educational attainment is one of the key protective factors against poverty and exclusion in later life. Yet family poverty and social exclusion happen to be a key risk factor in poor educational attainment. In this way problems can be passed down through the generations.

Yes, some people break that pattern, but such instances are few and far between. And school, which could be a major stepping stone out of poverty, all too often simply exacerbates the inequality.

Lord Victor Adebowale is chief executive of Turning Point, a learning difficulties, mental health and substance misuse charity

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