End choice to end inequality

Submitted by martin on 14 March, 2007 - 1:38

Some other issues need to be considered in the light of the debate over the lottery system.
The best predictor of a school's educational achievement is, apparently, the proportion of students getting free school dinners. It should come as no surprise that, within a class society, the most important factor in education is social class.
No education system can magic this fact away until socialism abolishes class society.
That is why socialists have supported an education system that mixes people from all backgrounds, a comprehensive system of schools where children of all backgrounds and "abilities have equal access to a decent properly-funded education.
The only way I can see this being even partially possible is to end any choice of school and draw up of catchment areas that create a cross-section of society in each school.
That would mean not taking just the children from the closest areas (unless you imposed compulsory class- mixed housing).
Such a policy would of course be attacked by parents like those in Brighton and Hove who claim to want ‘schools4communities’ and insist that their twelve-year old little darlings can’t possibly travel a whole twenty minutes to school on public transport, but must be driven in the Chelsea tractor.
But, frankly, I don’t much care about these disingenuous objections.

Mark Sandell

Comments

Submitted by martin on Wed, 14/03/2007 - 13:40

All class-divided societies have inequality in education. Britain is not unique in that. What is unusual in Britain is the frenzy of the "postcode lottery" for favoured schools, now supplemented in Brighton by a literal lottery.
It is different in other countries. Take Finland, which tops all the international tables for the average literacy, numeracy, and scientific competence of its school students.
The most successful Finnish students do not do particularly better than successful students in other countries. But the least successful Finnish students do much better than the least successful students in other countries.
The range of success in Finnish schools is narrower. And the range between schools in narrower, too. There is no fever in Finland to get into "successful" schools.
Finland is a capitalist country, and there is no reason to think that it escapes the general rule for class-divided societies: students from poorer families do worse at school than those from well-off families. Finnish schools do not do the impossible. But they do narrow the range.
Why? Some statistics suggest answers.
First, Finland is less unequal than Britain. Its "Gini coefficient", the standard measure of such things, is 25.6 as against Britain's 36. In other words, Finland has not yet had full-blast Thatcherism and Blairism.
Second, student-teacher ratios are significantly lower in Finland than in Britain: 15.8 for primary and 13.4 for secondary, as against 19.9 and 14.8 in Britain.
Third, teachers in Finland are much more highly trained than in Britain.
Fourth, pre-school provision is much better in Finland than in Britain.
The total level of spending per student in Finland is only a bit higher in Finland than in Britain: maybe Finland wastes less money on shiny PFI "academy" buildings.
What makes the "postcode lottery", or literal lottery, so frenzied in Britain is not just the inevitable inequalities of class society, but specific things, including the school league tables (which tend to be self-reinforcing, pushing "up" schools high in the tables and "down" schools low in them); the virtual absence of publicly-funded nursery education; and the inability to expand "successful" schools (because land costs too much), together with the policy of shutting down undersubscribed schools (instead of giving extra resources to help them), which ensures that there is no "slack" in the system.
We can demand of governments today, and of a future workers' government, that it fixes those things. We can demand of a future workers' government that it vastly reforms away social inequality, and puts great resources into adult and "catch-up" education among families previously deprived.
To demand of a workers' government that it legislates equality by refusing all choice to students and parents, and "bussing" students round to engineer the same mix in every school, is not sensible.
It is not possible to bus kids from central Liverpool (the poorest area in Britain) to Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire, or Igtham in Kent (the wealthiest areas, outside a few central-London postcodes).
In Brighton, or in some parts of London, it might be possible to draw catchment areas with the required mix. And then? The better-off would simply move to villages outside the city area, as they have done in many cities in the USA, and pay for private tutors.
Meanwhile the rigid "no choice" policy would - justifiably - have enraged many worse-off families who simply wanted their children to go to the same school as their siblings or their friends; to move to another school after a bad experience in a first one; to go to a school easy to reach; or to attend one which offered a particular speciality they wanted to do.
Martin Thomas

Submitted by martin on Wed, 14/03/2007 - 13:41

In Australia, students have pretty much free choice of which state school they go to.
Partly, I guess, it's a matter of some of the element of sharp competition being siphoned off through the large percentage of students at private schools (33%); partly that, because land is cheaper, schools operate with considerable "slack" as regards numbers (a school's numbers can go from 1100 to 500 and then up to 800 again, as my daughters' school has gone, without threats of closure or warnings that it is going over limit).
Partly also (this is a complication), it's to do with the fact that state-school teachers are employed by the state, not the school, and can in principle be allocated by the state to any school: thus, many of the "best" teachers are found in schools in "bad" areas.
But isn't the choice desirable? Aren't we narrowing our aspirations unnecessarily if we think that what even John Howard's capitalist Australia can manage is too ambitious for us to aim for?
Isn't our idea of socialism "generalised abundance", with people being able to choose, rather than rationing administered by some Social Equality Enforcement Authority?
It was, perhaps still is, commonplace on the Stalinist-influenced left to frown on any sort of "individualism", on the grounds that socialism means collectivism. The authentic Marxist view, I believe, is more as Trotsky put it: the working class (the majority), in capitalist society, suffers from too little individualism rather than too much, and socialism will bring much more individualism.
Of course the term "individualism" is used by capitalist ideologues to justify "free market", law-of-the-jungle economics. Of course the Blair-Brown government uses "choice" to justify privatisation, marketisation, and religious segregation in education.
But, properly understood, we are for individual choice.
Given a network of good local schools, of course most families will choose the nearest school. Not all, though. I did a "thought experiment" by considering my daughters and their friends.
Among all of them, I can think of only one who simply attends the nearest school (and even in that case, her two older sisters went to a different school).
Some prefer the school my daughters go to because it is famously (or notoriously, depending on your attitude) more liberal than the other nearby schools; or because it more cosmopolitan (majority of the students born overseas); or because it offers a special programme (International Baccalaureate) to students who want to go to university in other countries.
Others may prefer the counter-advantages of the other nearby schools: they're bigger, for a start, so offer a larger range of courses. They have stricter discipline, which some see as an advantage. One has better wheelchair provision.
There are some who want to stay on at their school although their parents have moved out of the catchment area. Some who want to go to a school because their siblings, or their friends, are there. Others whom their parents (sensibly) want to go to a different school from their siblings.
There are a few who have changed schools (and, in all cases, done much better as a result) because they got into a run of bad experiences at their previous school.
There's a girl who has moved to another school because she is a star at ballet and that other school has a special system for ballet students to study ballet every morning and then do ordinary classes in longer-than-usual afternoon school hours.
Some choose particular schools because they have special provision for students with disabilities.
There is not one of them for whom I would consider it anything other than bureaucratic bossiness for a School Queue Gendarmerie to instruct them that they can't go to their chosen school.
Probably the percentage of students choosing a school different from the "obvious" one is higher among my daughters' friends than in the whole population. Probably the percentage choosing "different" is higher among somewhat better-off, better-educated families (the genuinely rich not coming into the matter, since they choose private schools). But, for sure, it is not in the least uncommon for poor working class families to choose "different".
Of course, if they lived in a small town, they wouldn't have the choice. As Engels remarks somewhere, socialism can never guarantee absolute equality. People who live in the mountains will always have different conditions from plains-dwellers. That is different from having some gendarmerie impose a bit of small-town conditions, or mountain conditions, in the name of some office-designed scheme of equalisation.
If the School Queue Gendarmerie did insist on rigid rules, many would find ways round. In France, theoretically, the rule is rigid. You go to the local school as indicated by the carte scolaire, and that is that. In practice, pushy parents always find ways round it.
Even if the future "socialist" gendarmerie will be stricter than the French authorities, there will be ways round it. The mum who has moved makes a deal with the new tenant of her old house to tell the School Queue Gendarmes that she still lives there. Parents separate (or pretend to separate), and one rents a room for a while in the desired catchment area.
Or, no doubt, a little bribe to the School Queue Gendarmes (who meanwhile will be making sure that their own children get to favoured schools) will do the trick.
I predict that after a few years of the School Queue Gendarmerie, we would look back on school lotteries as a relatively above-board and uncorrupt method of forcible social mixing.
And meanwhile, if another arm of the Social Equality Enforcement Authority were to tell adults - not the rich, but ordinary, maybe marginally better-off, adults - that they must move to a less favoured area, or take a more arduous and uncongenial job, in order to execute the equality scheme worked out in the Authority's office, what would those adults say?
Why should school students have fewer rights in this respect than adults?
Martin Thomas

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