School catchment areas are more segregating than faith schools

From Telegraph blogs, March 4 2013

If, like me, you have children aged either between 3-4 or 10-11 this will probably be an anxious time as you wait to find out whether your child has got into your preferred school.

The difference between success and failure is great. On the one hand you can find yourself with a fantastic nearby school, easy to get to, where the teachers care, the other kids are friends with your child, and he or she will spend the next seven years in a happy, stable environment. On the other you could face a twice-daily hour trek to one of the worst schools in the borough.

It’s impossible to describe the school places lottery without sounding like a snob, because in London education is basically all about social segregation, whether we like to admit it or not. Even if you’re nowhere near the social elite, the aim is to send your children to a school with as many people of a similar or higher social class because, when it comes down to it, that’s going to be best for both their education and development.

It wasn’t always this bad. My first primary school was fairly socially mixed, but that’s increasingly rare now. While cities have always produced class differences, in London it has become far more extreme in recent years, for a number of reasons; it’s a city both of global elites and of people of extreme poverty and dysfunction. London’s education levels have improved in recent years but until recently, as well as having many of the best schools in England, it had four of the worst five boroughs. Even today some of its bad schools are very bad.

Primary school is an anxiety, but in secondary school, where social problems really began to show, the downsides are much, much worse, which is why so many people leave the capital when their child reaches 11. Ex-Londoners often say that the easy availability of places in relatively good (and safe) schools is one of the best things about leaving, although competition in parts of the Home Counties is also fierce.

This change reflects the fact that in British life generally the difference between being a winner and loser has become much greater. So it’s hardly surprising that so many people cheat. Lots of people move into the catchment area of desirable schools in November; they stay for a year, then move out, and their children all get a place. They aren’t cheating, as such, but they’re playing the system. And why not? Those within the area are only there by dint of being able to afford property, which is even more expensive because of the school. Why shouldn’t others move in?

This is why I can’t sympathise with the outrage about people, including Nick Clegg, sending their children to faith schools. Of course it fills many family services with the stench of hypocrisy that pretty much goes against everything Christianity’s founder stood for. And yes, it means those children are taught in separate schools to those whose parents can’t stand the sight of an altar. Is that a big deal in a cosmopolitan city like London? Social class is the biggest source of segregation in the city, with able to afford desirable schools being educated separately from those too poor to. That’s a form of segregation far more pervasive throughout British society than the now archaic differences between Protestants and Catholics or between Christians and non-believers.

(I have an interest here, I should add. I went to a school similar to the Oratory, where the Cleggs are sending their son, and I made friends with people from all walks of life, social classes and races, and I’m sure Clegg Junior will too – and get a fine education, to boot.)

The only difference between segregation by faith and by geography is that, rather than having to simply be rich enough to live inside a catchment area, those wishing to attend a church school must get together once a week, make their children listen to stories about forgiveness, non-violence and love between different nations, and do charity work in the community.

What do you think?