Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published an analysis of fair opportunities for pupils (PDF). Andreas Schleicher, its Special Adviser for Education, has said that social division represents a long term issue for the UK education system, and that there is distinct polarisation between the attainment levels of rich and poor pupils.
Using the example of London – where one-fifth of the country’s children attend school – Geoff Whitty and I found that children getting free school meals (a marker for deprivation) were very much more likely to attend poorly-achieving schools than successful ones.
The graph below demonstrates this. On the x-axis, we have plotted something the Government calls Families of Schools, based on official data and grouped according to shared characteristics such as attainment, number of children having free school meals and so on. On the y-axis, we have plotted the different types of school, as a proportion of the whole family: community, voluntary aided or controlled (usually faith schools) and foundation (funded directly by the State).
From the graph we can see that there are comparatively few community schools in the top performing Family, and a higher number of voluntary aided or voluntary controlled schools, in the case of this group, selective schools.
In contrast, all the schools in the bottom performing Family, where most of the children receiving FSM are concentrated, are community schools, and none are selective. (Data source: DfES, 2005).
As these data are from 2005, we have revisited our earlier research. In the 2011 Families of Schools data, 2% of children in Family Number 1 (highest achieving, mainly selective schools) received free school meals (FSM), compared to 45% of children in Family Number 23 (lowest achieving, mainly community schools)..
So it is clear that the children suffering the most social and economic deprivation still have the least opportunity to attend academically successful schools. This is because the UK currently offers parents variable educational provision, usually depending on factors over which they have little or no control – for instance, whether the school is selective, its geographical location, or the family’s religion.
This variable provision has been described as a “spectrum of diversity” by academies sponsor Sir Bruce Liddington, but to some families it can simply seem confused and fragmented. In response to a situation where some children are “in” and the others “out” – a kind of Fortnum and Mason versus Walmart model of education, if you like – I propose a John Lewis model of schooling. In this model, all the main stakeholders play a part in its success, and it is designed to be mutually beneficial to all. Wherever you go in the country, you know what you are getting, and it’s reliable.
If it goes wrong, as is occasionally inevitable, other parts of the system step in to make sure your child is well looked after and that his or her education is attended to properly. In my John Lewis educational world, teachers would fraternize regularly and exchange best practice, pupils would learn to work in a schooling system where knowledge is pursued as a means to understanding rather than examination passes, and there would be a national consensus on what the education system is trying to achieve.
It’s time to ditch the language of division, where some people are “in” and some people are “out”, and reform our fragmented, artificially competitive education system. Instead we need to move towards the collaborative, high reliability schooling this country deserves.