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While thousands of teachers strike this week, the three main parties’ Education ministers will be joined by their European counterparts to speak at the Education Reform Summit in London. The summit, running today and tomorrow in the spirit of ‘ambition’ and ‘inspiration’, will ‘celebrate England’s success in leading the world in education reform’. Members of NUT protesting around the country – and others - may well question the premise that this celebration is based on. It’s hard to argue, for instance, that England is leading in education reform where others follow; some of our structural reforms have trailed Sweden’s, a worrying omen given their recent fall from grace. It’s harder still to argue that England is a leading global player in standards, when in 2013, the country did not make the top 20 in the PISA tables for Reading, Maths, or Science.


So what can we expect at the Summit? With the election less than a year away, and the Westminster machine in full action, we can look forward to a showcase of manifesto policies from Gove, Laws and Hunt. The exclusively positive rhetoric of the Summit blurb suggests we might be in store for a fair amount of back-patting, and a sponsor-fuelled optimistic vision of the role of technology in education.  We can also be fairly sure, judging by the last 5 years, of frenetic announcements and recommendations; teachers hoping for a brief respite to allow schools to catch up with policy, as recommended by the RSA, look away now.

In their summit endorsements, we get a preview of the topics; teacher quality, collaborative innovation, closing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils. This is after all a meeting of what the Finnish educationalist Pasi Sahlberg refers to as the GERM (global education reform movement).  Expect a series of twitter-friendly soundbites that deny the evidence of the limited impact of schools in comparison to other socio-economic factors. Yes, deprivation isn’t destiny. Yes, fatalism would betray our most disadvantaged pupils. Any buck passed on at this summit is likely to lie with schools and their ability to improve teacher quality– not with other areas of government policy.


While the debate around how we produce excellence in our education system in a way that is blind to background is an important one, there’s another important topic that is likely to be passed over.  That’s the topic of the school admissions system, and its relationship with segregation between schools – by class, parental income, religious affiliation and ability. It is central to the question of how to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils, but also to the question of how to ensure our education system works for everyone in a way that is socially just.


Segregation between schools is produced and reinforced through the admissions system in multiple ways. Schools admitting pupils by residence favours those who can pay a premium for housing in an area with good schools. The sharp-elbowed middle classes may be able to utilise school choice systems better than their lower income counterparts. And, schools judged through high stakes testing face incentives to cream-skim the pupils who they expect to be easiest to teach through their admissions decisions. While changes to the School Admissions Code in the last decade have helped reduce the last of these mechanisms, in 2012 the OECD declared England’s school system one of the most segregated in the world. You won’t hear this discussed at the summit for three reasons: because it’s not glamorous, because responsibility for the system lies not with teachers but with government, and because it’s a challenge to market-oriented reforms that the GERM are fond of.


Two leading education figures have recently made public statements that illustrate why this issue can’t slip from the agenda. The first is Sir Peter Lampl, in his foreword advocating the recommendations from the Sutton Trust/Social Market Foundation research released last week. The research asserts that the state should pay participating independent schools the cost of a state school education and allow them to charge means-tested top-up fees. The figures and representation of the findings have been taken apart by critics, as even without considering system-wide effects, the expected earnings of pupils on the scheme would not exceed the cost to the taxpayer of funding the programme.


But there’s a broader problem as well with pulling the most able pupils out of state schools and using state money to fund their private education – and that’s the negative effect on all of the less able pupils in the system.

there’s a broader problem as well with pulling the most able pupils out of state schools and using state money to fund their private education – and that’s the negative effect on all of the less able pupils in the system

As it is, independent schooling confers a signal of class and to some extent ability as most are selective. But strengthening segregation in schools by ability, as this policy would do, labels children left behind as less able at the age of 11, and denies them the positive peer effects of mixed ability groups. Lampl tries to skirt around this issue by saying that while we have grammar schools we cannot argue against such a policy - but that’s not a philosophical or even a practical defence of his position. Why not question whether we should still have grammar schools, when they have been demonstrated by the Sutton Trust’s own research to segregate pupils by socioeconomic background as well as ability? Lampl himself has argued that ‘whatever the average ranking of English education, one thing is certain: we need to reduce social segregation in schools.’ Taking a long-term view, social class and ability are too closely linked to accept segregation in one but not the other.


A useful ally comes in the form of Sir Michael Wilshaw. Last month, he argued that ‘there is only one school model that can realistically educate all our children’ – and that’s a comprehensive system.  He summarises the problem with allowing segregation by ability:


“'A grammar school in every town,' as some are calling for, would also mean three secondary moderns in every town, too – a consequence rarely mentioned. … If we have learned anything from those educational superstars in Asia and elsewhere it is that a country will only progress if it provides an excellent education for all of its citizens, not just some of them."


Wilshaw’s is an instrumental argument for socially mixed intakes in schools. It is supported by IFS research arguing that more mixed intakes partly explains London schools’ success, and research from Sweden and the US that increased segregation in schools leads to reduced average attainment, with the largest decreases for the disadvantaged and academically less able. Peer effects are not the only problem; if intakes become segregated, the schools may enter a cycle of decline as teachers and resources are attracted to the easier schools. The pupil premium, when first suggested by Policy Exchange and endorsed by the Coalition, aimed to reduce segregation by decreasing the incentives schools face to cream-skim. However, this aspect of the premium is not present in DfE’s policy rhetoric or evaluation. My MSc research this summer aims to begin to address this research deficit and establish whether the premium has the capacity to address the segregation problem in choice systems.


Sorting children into categories early in their lives directly contradicts a worldview at the RSA we have called the Power to Create

Sorting children into categories early in their lives directly contradicts a worldview at the RSA we have called the Power to Create; how we can enable people to be the authors of their own lives. Ethically and instrumentally, the Power to Create entails that we make what we see as a better life available to everyone, regardless of background but also regardless of prior ability or achievements. Rather than talking about how we allow the socially mobile to travel up the pecking order, we’re thinking about how to enable everyone to lead creative and fulfilling lives. The English school admissions system, based on residence and in some cases selection, is stacked against the economically disadvantaged, but also children whose abilities don’t fit our model of academic excellence. I’d like to see some discussion of this at the Education Reform Summit, but fear that talking about technological innovation and producing world-class teachers will keep delegates in their consensus-building comfort zones.


Carys Roberts is an RSA intern and MSc Social Policy (Research) student at LSE. @carysroberts


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