Is school selection by house price really better than selection by ability?

The Guardian reports today that that a growing gap in household incomes and rising house prices have made England's top state-funded comprehensive and academy schools more socially exclusive.

The Guardian reports today that a growing gap in household incomes and rising house prices have made England’s top state-funded comprehensive and academy schools more socially exclusive.

The article is based on analysis by the Sutton Trust, which found that nearly one in six of the top schools had greater exclusivity than their neighbouring state schools and the national average.

It also found that the top 500 state-funded schools taught fewer than half the national average proportion of children eligible for free school meals.

This backs up findings from a report last year by the OECD, which concluded that Britain’s school system was one of the most socially segregated in the developed world, with children from poor families often concentrated in the same schools.

Just four out of 20 industrialised countries had a worse record, the report added.

Anybody who believes that the life chances of a child shouldn’t be determined by their parents’ bank balance must recognise the tragedy of the British school system.

Access to most comprehensive schools today is, for those not fortunate enough to live in the right place already, largely determinded by the ability of a child’s parents to pay for a house in a desirable catchment area. The better the school the more it costs to live in the area. This is why last year premiums on houses in areas with good schools commanded an average price of £309,732, 42 per cent higher than the average price at the time of £218,114.

The educational  inequality that takes root at school is replicated as pupils pass through the system. Today 57 per cent of places on undergraduate courses at Oxford go to applicants from the state sector – including a disproportionately high number from the remaining grammar schools – and 42 per cent of places go to applicants from independent schools.

This is after universities have been told they risk being stripped of the right to charge higher fees if they fail to attract a wide mix of students.

The situation appears to have got worse. Former President of Trinity College, Michael Beloff, believes that by the early 1970s state schools supplied 70 per cent of the intake at Oxford.

The first thing a truly progressive education policy would need to do is recognise that selection is already rife in schools. It is simply a method of selection that dares not speak its name – selection via stealth.

Schools campaigner Fiona Miller (herself a former grammar school girl) represented the attitude of those with a blind spot for the current system when she wrote last year that “Selective education was largely abolished because middle-class parents were incensed at their children being labelled failures at 11 and forced into secondary moderns starved of the balanced intakes all schools need.”

The assumption here – that school selection was “abolished”, largely or otherwise – is of course false. As the evidence above shows it wasn’t.

Responding to the Sutton Trust study, its chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, puts it like this:

“The schools in this study, by and large, are not using forms of overt selection. But they are exercising a form of social selection.”

Ms Miller is correct in saying that many middle class parents were “incensed” by the system of selective education. They were usually incensed because their children were losing out to bright working class kids. According to the Campaign for the Advancement of State Education, 66 per cent of parents wanted a grammar school education for their child, meaning many middle class parents were inevitably disappointed when their child did not make the cut.

This is not to gloss over the inequalities that existed under the grammar schools system: deciding a child’s life chances at aged-11 was profoundly unjust – for one thing, what about all those pupils who don’t develop academically until they are a bit older?

The Sutton Trust report should act as a rejoinder to the left, however, to get over the idea that school selection has been abolished. It hasn’t. It’s simply that a great deal of selection is today conducted under the cover of the comprehensive system, and those who lose out under the current system are not as sharp elbowed and, frankly, as middle class as those parents who were once upon a time “incensed” by grammar schools.

Without introducing the complex bureaucratic nightmare of allocating school places at random – with the associated logistical dilemma of getting kids to schools that aren’t situated near to where they live – why not simply admit that selective education is a reality and try to make it work for pupils based on their individual academic merit rather than the depth of their parents’ pockets or the sharpness of their elbows?

A good start would be to look again at selection via ability.

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