One story that slipped by a couple of weeks ago related to research led by Stephen Gorard of Durham University and presented at the BERA conference. The Independent got very excited and led with the headline “Academies increase divisions between the rich and poor”. It asserted that “The government’s new academies are creating greater segregation between pupils from rich and poor homes than council-run state schools.”
The actual story was however a good deal more complex and wasn’t actually mainly about academies. The study took a long time scale and analysed a number of aspects of segregation going back to 1989. Interestingly he found that in some ways there is less segregation now than a few years ago.
Economic segregation seems to be related to the number of children living in poverty. As that number fell during the Labour government, the remaining poor families were concentrated in fewer schools so the segregation index rose. Now child poverty is increasing, more schools contain poor children and the differences between schools on this indicator are reduced. Not though a good way of reducing this kind of segregation.
Similarly segregation by ethnicity is reducing as the BME population grows and is less concentrated in particular areas. Inclusion policies have also meant that segregation of SEN pupils has declined.
But crucially the research shows that there has always been a “stubborn underlying level of divide”. It concludes that “since records began in 1989, the proportion of poor pupils who would have to change schools to ensure there was no segregation by poverty has never dropped below 30%.”
The real significance of the research however lies in its analysis of where this underlying segregation is to be found and how it relates to different systems of schooling. It finds that segregation by poverty is highest in areas with fewest ‘bog standard’ schools, and lowest in areas with fewest independent, special, selective, faith-based, foundation, CTC or academy schools.
Not surprisingly, areas that retain grammars and secondary moderns have the highest levels of economic segregation. But the same is true and always has been true of areas with high proportions of faith and foundation schools.
So, if this has been going on for many years, where do Academies come in? The study found that converter academies have much lower FSM numbers than the national average. Large number of such schools in any given authority “tended to be associated with higher levels of segregation”.
This is probably not entirely a direct academy effect – there hasn’t been time for changes in intake as a result of conversion to become that apparent. It suggests perhaps that conversion tended to happen in areas where there were already significant levels of segregation. After all schools with favoured intakes were more likely to meet the DfE criteria for conversion and were most likely to make a financial killing from the process. We should remember too that the RSA Academies Commission found evidence that some academies are manipulating the admissions process to improve their intake (as they see it).
The overall conclusion though is clear. “Any differentiated type of school tends to be linked to higher local levels of segregation. On the other hand, maintained, non-selective schools are strongly and unambiguously linked to both lower segregation and a further decline in segregation of all types over time.”
One last question does of course arise. Do we mind? Advocates of selection usually take refuge in the assertion that selection will be to the benefit of bright poor children and so will enhance social mobility. Studies like this shown that argument to be nonsense – differentiated systems simply shut out poorer children. Research has always shown – in this country and internationally by OECD – that economic segregation lowers overall achievement. So we absolutely should mind.