There is a revealing moment in a recent episode of the Class Divide podcast, which explores educational inequality in Brighton. Our interviewee, former headteacher, Andy Schofield gives an account of school leadership that gets to the heart of issues in contemporary schooling.
Schofield was formerly the head of a popular and well-regarded central Brighton school. As such, he was tasked with supporting another school based in east Brighton, an under-resourced community. He recounts his positive perception of that school’s staff and how he arranged for students to come from there to his school for some subjects, observing that the wider social mix proved highly beneficial to everyone and that standards overall in his own school were going up as a result. However, middle-class parents and governors objected, stigmatizing children from a poorer area as “too rough”. The struggling school was shut soon after, despite being the most improved school in England that year.
It has long been accepted that parental choice is often based not (just) on shiny facilities or even on raw GCSE scores, but on wanting the “right kind” of children to be mixing with their own. Evidence repeatedly shows how closely schooling outcomes in England are linked to socioeconomic background. Schools with young people from under-resourced backgrounds may be rejected by middle-class parents as not the “right kind”, not least because they are assumed not to care about education.
This may be one factor leading to concentrations of students from such backgrounds in particular schools, which then in turn are known to struggle with teacher recruitment and retention. Research by the Sutton Trust has long shown that what are deemed the country’s most successful comprehensive state schools are also relatively more socially exclusive, while the OECD suggests that UK schools are among the most socially segregated of richer countries.
And yet, Danny Dorling’s research shows that having a low level of variation between school outcomes (that is, where schools serve mixed communities) tends to place a country near the top of the education league table, as has been the case with Finland.
So, how do we judge ‘successful schools’ and is it possible to change the conversation to do so in a more holistic way? Could we judge schools by how they promote understanding and social mixing across different communities – including those of class? By how they create a genuine sense of belonging for heterogeneous groups of students? And might this create more tolerant and vibrant communities generally?
All these questions are prompted by a current consultation by the Labour-led authority in Brighton and Hove, about giving children on free school meals (FSM) a higher priority in school place allocation (only below looked-after children and siblings). It would mean that, depending on demand, local authority schools would take up to the city-wide average of children on FSM, projected to be 28 per cent.
Quite remarkably, although this admissions prioritisation has been possible in theory for years, until now no local education authority has been brave enough to propose it. A similar approach has however been part of Chile’s equity-oriented educational reforms since 2015.
The proportion of young people on free school meals in Brighton and Hove schools varies from 15 per cent to 46 per cent. It’s not only an uneven and inequitable distribution, but it means that many privileged young people and their families rarely encounter those from very different backgrounds. Stigma and prejudice of the sort described in the opening paragraph can thrive in these circumstances.
Since the closure of their local school, communities in east Brighton have been highly constrained when it comes to choosing a school. Knowing that they might have a greater chance of getting into some of what have been the more popular and oversubscribed schools in central Brighton could be an incentive for parents and children to consider them more seriously than they have felt able to do previously.
Brighton and Hove has long prided itself on being an ‘inclusive’ city. These proposals appear to offer an opportunity for it to live up to its reputation by acting for the wider social good of all its young people. Interestingly, they align with rather than challenge the ‘parental choice’ mantra of successive governments, but this time try to deliver meaningful choice to those who hitherto have lacked it.
Even if this specific consultation comes down on the side of children on free school meals, there is much more to do. Will school populations change radically, or will other factors such as a lack of good and affordable bus services for those who depend on them continue to act as barriers? Have some schools become habituated to recognising the skills and capacities that already-privileged children bring with them from home to school? If so, how do children from other backgrounds experience these schools? And how ready are schools to embrace diverse cultures, values and pedagogic practices to enable all students to feel welcomed?
We’re looking forward to finding out.