Segregation is holding our children back

Next month a report on segregation will be published for the prime minister. Hopefully it will mark the point when England starts to take integration seriously

In England, our faith-based admissions system has evolved a side-effect of keeping children of faith separate from children of other faiths and none. The majority of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu state schools have no white British pupils at all, and most Jewish state schools have no Asian pupils.

As the OECD has pointed out, the UK has some of the most segregated school systems in the developed world. This is a picture of segregation brought about not by accident, nor by a complex combination of individual choices – but by policy.

Fortunately, it is a policy slowly starting to change. Reforms introduced by Michael Gove limited the ability of academies and free schools to select any more than 50 per cent of their intake on the basis of faith. Unusually for the former education secretary, it was a policy (mostly) without contention. A pragmatic and sensible move that respected the critical faith-ethos of faith schools but aimed to combat the segregation side effect.

Segregation comes not by accident, nor by individual choices – but by government policy

It is against this background that the case put forward by New Schools Network’s Nick Timothy (and reported by Schools Week) fails to fly. The policy leader of the government’s body for promoting new schools suggested allowing new faith schools to select
100 per cent of children by faith. This not only feels like undoing good work but swims against the tide of growing government intent to tackle segregation – as signalled in the prime minister’s recent life chances speech.

New funding for the promotion of English language for Muslim women; the expansion of the National Citizen Service (NCS), which brings together 15-17 year olds from all backgrounds; and a commitment to tackle segregation in housing, suggest a concerted effort to promote social integration.

By contrast, I agree with Timothy when he makes the case for an expansion of academy chains where schools are struggling to integrate pupils of different backgrounds. For example, he describes allowing more co-educational schools to open in areas where previously there are mostly single-sex options. Beyond academies, we should also recognise there is much that existing segregated schools can do to promote integration. We should look closely at Northern Ireland’s shared education programme, which for many years brought together pupils across a divided nation.

Next month will see Louise Casey publish her report into segregation for the prime minister. We hope this will be an important moment where the country starts to take integration seriously.

What can those of us passionate about removing segregation in our school system expect to see from the review? Firstly, we know the prime minister is very closely associated with the review. This suggests, at the very least, that it is not a report that will sit on a Whitehall shelf. Schools Week has reported on the habit of governments of all stripes of sitting on reviews that require bravery to act on. With Cameron’s involvement, this shouldn’t happen here.

Second, young people and education are likely to be at the heart of the review with commitments to continue to expand the NCS being a clear signal of intent. NCS not only enhances the life chances of those taking part – through the development of character skills – but we know bringing together young people from different backgrounds means that they develop higher levels of trust across different groups and that they take that back to their communities.

Third, we are more likely to see a doubling down on the Gove reforms of the admissions code, as any change would run contrary to the existing direction of travel. Although with the New Schools Network and some churches likely lobbying for change – and both being considerable influences on Conservative thinkers in the past – one cannot entirely rule it out.

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  1. Mike Ollerton

    I have long held the view that Faith schools were segregationist and, therefore, a cause for much that is wrong in the world. Furthermore, as a firm believer in all-attainment classrooms I suggest integration and inclusion can be best met by actively choosing not to separate learners into classes based upon flawed notions of ‘ability’, arrived at by an even greater flaw in the education system of testing.

  2. Paul Hampartsoumian

    The negative connotations associated with the word ‘segregation’ derive mainly from historical racial segregation driven by racist ideology which is obviously abhorrent. But segregation in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – most people do not bemoan the ‘gender segregation’ of toilets or changing rooms or the ‘age segregation’ of over 60s clubs or childrens nurseries. Yet now we see efforts to define ‘religious segregation in schools’ as a modern enemy of fairness and justice. This is highly misleading and at odds with the principle of freedom to practice religion. Surely the most unjust form of segregation in education is that which reserves the best school places for the children of the wealthy while state funded provision is underfunded and the rest of us have to struggle with bigger class sizes, fewer staff and less resources. Most children from a faith based education go out and integrate into the world and the workplace without difficulty so it is highly misleading to suggest that they are somehow disadvantaged or ‘held back’. The complaint most often comes from the parents of children who want their children to attend the local Catholic school (which has great exam results) but want to opt out of the faith elements of that education – which is exactly the opposite of integration. Contrary to popular belief Catholic schools are open to all – but seek to give priority of places to practicing Catholics, if there is surplus demand for places in Catholic schools (for example) – surely there should be more available not less?