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 

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.