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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle