Ending school segregation is the key to social mobility

Half-baked reforms offering only an illusion of choice risk compounding the problem of wealthy paren

This week, the Deputy Prime Minister unveiled indicators the government will be using to measure the extent of social mobility in the UK – in other words, the degree to which labour market success is determined by the socio-economic status of your parents.

In today’s economy, now more than ever, high human capital is critical for future individual prosperity and health. So educational attainment is critical for social mobility. Just look at the premium from attending university: on average, £108,000 over a lifetime.

Parental background, particularly in countries such as the United Kingdom with high income inequality, is a key determinant of social and economic outcomes.  But, despair not, because our genes and our parents don’t have to determine our destiny: high-quality educational institutions - schools and especially nurseries - can mitigate the disadvantages associated with growing up poor.

Good schools have good teachers. A wealth of US literature shows that children who have effective teachers reap significant long-term rewards: in one study, pupils learning from an excellent teacher for just one year gained on average a quarter of a million dollars more in their lifetime earnings than similar students who didn’t.  For the British Government, fretting about the country’s decline in the international league tables for students’ reading, the key task is to drive up the quality of teaching.

We have financial incentives for high-quality graduates to join the profession, with discounts on the repayment of their tuition fee loans. And the House of Commons Education Select Committee has recently proposed performance-related pay for teachers. But the Secretary of State’s main mission is supply-side liberalisation to encourage more choice - through more free schools – and to increase competition – through greater autonomy for schools from local authorities and Whitehall to allow freedom to innovate.

Promoting choice and competition is the right direction of travel, but there are limits to how effective the current strategy will be. Many parents and community groups simply do not have the capital, especially when government won’t fork out, to set up new schools to facilitate greater choice. And government, wrongly, will not allow for-profit providers to set up schools. As Nick Clegg’s special adviser commented in the FT last year, “If nothing changes a few good schools will open, but not the hundreds needed for competition to have an impact on standards”.

In fact, a half-baked choice strategy can have damaging implications for the most disadvantaged pupils. When choice is limited, there is no competitive pressure on poor performing schools, which can fill their rolls regardless. Meanwhile parents with more resources monopolise the best schools, effectively buying a place by having the funds to move into the catchment area. This dynamic is confirmed by research from the Centre for the Economics of Education at the LSE, which showed that the modest expansion of choice for parents in some parts of England led to children from the same socio-economic background being more likely to be educated together.

Increased segregation then compounds the social mobility problem. Work by OECD in 2009 demonstrated that there is a significant advantage for poorer students to be educated in socially mixed schools, and this has no negative effect on overall performance. Without mixed school populations, the attainment gap between rich and poor children just widens.

So, how can we use parental choice without it resulting in damaging social segregation? A school-specific lottery for admissions would help. Here, parents could be free to apply to a school of their choice. Where schools are over-subscribed, places would be allocated in full or in part by a lottery, rather than by catchment areas, giving a greater chance to ambitious poorer parents who didn’t have the funds to move into the local area. Why not insist that schools do this if they want pupil premium funding or academy status?

Another mechanism would be to incentivise more affluent parents to hedge their bets on sending their children to a school which traditionally doesn’t do as well in the league tables. In the late 1990s, Texas introduced a rule where pupils who were in the top 10% for exam results in every school were automatically guaranteed a place at a state university. Recent research has shown that the policy led to greater social diversity in schools.  It would be possible to apply this scheme in the UK without undermining the independence of universities, by creating a pool of extra places universities could bid for which includes the top 10% of students from a select number of schools.

Parental choice is an important tool for driving up quality in schools. But we need to be realistic about its limits when public money is short. The challenge is to use choice to improve performance while avoiding the unintended consequences of entrenching disadvantage through social polarisation. Lotteries and an adaption of the Texas 10% plan are ways to square this circle.

Ryan Shorthouse is a researcher at the Social Market Foundation

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.