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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.