British society is perceived to be more unequal than ever with socio-economic status having as much if not more of an effect on a child’s future than ever before. The link between social and educational inequality has been assumed in policy for many years, with a good education seen almost universally as a way of accessing a better quality of life. This may well still be true, particularly in areas where education is not universal, but it now seems that the reforms that were introduced in western developed nations over the last 30 years have served to exacerbate the problem of social inequality rather than solve it. The argument presented here is that the neo-liberal inspired policies which have weaved their way into education must be fully rolled back if we are to have any chance of achieving the liberal aim of improving social equality. The focus will be on the issue of school choice, which I argue is no choice at all if we are serious about this aim.
School choice sits as one of a handful neo-liberal education reforms instituted since the late 70s. Others include the marketisation of schools, centralisation of curriculum and performance management, and all are interlinked and interdependent. They began as a reaction to two issues that faced, not just Britain, but many developed western nations at the time, namely: an engorged public sector which was seen as wasteful and sluggish, and a response to the perceived threat of globalisation. The Thatcherite government believed Britain had to become more competitive internationally and took pains to prove that public spending in education was ‘effective’ and ‘efficient’. The result was the quasi-marketisation of the sector. The marketisation part introduced the mechanism of school choice to drive up performance in schools while allowing them to respond quicker to the changing needs of the job-market. The quasi part was the centralisation of curriculum and funding and increased government montoring of performance imposed most vigorously by the New Labour government post 1997. Combined, the government said, we would have all the positives of a market (increased efficiency and responsiveness etc) without the problem of having any ‘losers’ in the imperfect market system.
To monitor the effectiveness and output of schools, tools such as league tables and targets were introduced. These precipitated a subtle but often ignored shift between student need and student performance. To illustrate this I think specifically of my experience as a trainee- teacher in a school in Hillingdon. In the third term I was shocked to discover that the year 10 students had been colour coded into red, amber and green depending on how likely they were to achieve 5A*-C GCSE grades. This in turn would determine the school’s position in the league tables (a 50% school for example has 50% of students getting these grades or above). We were to focus on the ‘greens’ but particularly the ‘ambers’, management said. The fact that at this crucial time we were to concentrate our efforts on those who struggled in effect the least is a pertinent example of how this market driven education landscape has turned common sense on its head. The greater need of ‘reds’ is sacrificed to enhance the performance of the ‘amber’ and ‘greens’. Things have changed a little with the new ‘value-added’ league tables, but the practice still continues.
While the example above paints a grim picture, the truth is that the schools feel they have no choice but to behave this way. Though many schools achieve good results through good teaching there is room to manipulate the superficiality in the system. Currently, funding is associated with outcomes, thus a school with a low achieving population is likely to have less funding per pupil than a high achieving one. However, even if this funding issue were completely removed the problem would persist. Parents choose schools often based on more subtle criteria than simply funding. The results from the PISA surveys which test attainment in 15-16 year olds across OECD countries also show that funding has only a minor effect on academic attainment. Following the socioeconomic background of the family, the factor with the highest effect on attainment seems to be the socioeconomic background of the other pupils in the school. Schools know this and though state comprehensives are prohibited from having academic entrance requirements, they can choose to market themselves in such a way as to be more attractive to certain populations.
The school has become the provider of a commodity which reorients the role of parents as consumers. It is presumed by the champions of choice that all parents are equal in this equation, but this is not true. There is no doubt that parents of every background care about their child’s education (there is research supporting this too!), but it is true that that middle class parents have larger amounts of so-called ‘cultural’ and indeed real capital to draw on when making decisions about the ‘next stages’ of education for their children. The inequality is reproduced mainly at the transition points in education e.g. nursery to primary or primary to secondary, or at the points in system where choices are to be made. This is an important argument in favour of fully comprehensive systems with no streaming as found in the famed education systems of Sweden, Denmark and Finland. We should be cautious about cross-country policy borrowing, but the logic behind the success of the comprehensive system in maintaining equality does seem to be compelling.
Not only do middle class parents have the knowledge of how to best play the system but if needs be, they often have the means to physically move house to get what they want. In fact it has been known for families to think years in advance so they can move to the ‘right’ area to be near the ‘right’ school. So the best schools attract the best students and market continually reinforces the class divide. This in turn has a consequence on the make up of communities. If the ‘best’ schools actively attract the higher echelons, this results in middle class areas being built around ‘good schools’ leaving large numbers of the less well off to make do with what is more readily available to them. We won’t ever be able to stop people from moving, but removing the culture of treating education as a commodity may go some way to helping the problem of community division.
There is little evidence to suggest that choice can cure social inequality, as was the hope when it was initially introduced. The best evidence for this seems to come from Scandinavia. While the intergenerational transmission of social inequality has increased in countries like the UK, US, Germany and Italy since the 1960s, it has decreased in Sweden. The explanation seems to hinge more on social policy, such as the introduction of universal childcare, more than anything else. Social policy improved equality, but the comprehensive education system seemed to reinforce the ‘good start’ given to children by not allowing the social inequalities to perpetuate. Thus choice in education certainly causes educational inequality which in turn seems to reproduce and possibly amplify social inequalities. What is interesting is that Sweden has recently introduced some choice into the system and the PISA results are now showing that educational inequality is rising. Whether this will eventually lead to an amplification of social inequality is speculative, but what is does do is debunk the argument that if society is more equal, choice ‘will not matter’. There will always be inequalities in society (at least without extreme measures such as communism), and the effect of choice seems to always be harmful to some sort of equality; proven in the educational case and probable in the societal one.
So what does that mean for Britain with its streaming, choice heavy education system? The major point to note is that simply getting rid of choice altogether will not solve anything, but equally important is that fact that if we get everything else right, it seems that all choice does is reinforce and amplify social inequality. If our aim is to encourage society to be more equal, I cannot see the argument for insisting on keeping policy which actively undermines what we are trying to do. We can’t blame the middle classes either. While many middle class liberal parents feel strongly that society should be more equal, the way they act does not always reflect their ideology. They commonly invoke the happiness of their children as the reason why they make such decisions, but by allowing the sort of choice which is realistically only employed by the middle class, it does subtly imply that only a middle class child’s ‘happiness’ is more important to society than a poorer one’s. While I recognise this is a bitter pill to swallow, I believe that political parties have yet to fully recognise their own bias in this matter. It is true that most political activists and policy makers are some of the most likely to understand and play the system in our own homes and this is an emotional issue. To what extent are we driven by our own middle classness in this debate?
Lack of choice does not have to mean lack of diversity. Rolling back the neo-liberal measures by abolishing league tables, decentralising of curriculum and rethinking funding to better reflect need rather than performance, will allow schools to best serve the rich tapestry of backgrounds present in the Britain’s local communities. Choice is a chimera, a fantastical political concept that serves no purpose other than to trick the middle classes into thinking they are empowered in the decisions that affect children’s future, often at the expense of others. Let us empower them in other ways and divert the immense energy middle class parents have to give from getting their children out of failing schools back into the school itself. We fool ourselves into thinking that choice does no harm. The stark truth perhaps is that the policy sediment on this matter is so deep and hardened that it will take a brave political party to take on the task of digging it up again.
Layla Moran is an activist in Acton, London.