Divided schools, divided communities

How to make Britain’s schools less segregated, by Gavin Shuker Labour Co-operative MP for Luton South.

Schools exist not just as a mechanism for learning and training, but as powerful sites of social cohesion and integration.

The rise in public concern about immigration ‘swamping’ public services; ‘radicalisation’ in predominantly Muslim intake schools; community cohesion and myths of ‘political correct-ness’ have left their mark on our politics. But the centre left also has to respond to a legitimate but somewhat harder to define sense of loss of stability and neighbourliness in many communities.

Those who say the school gate has become the final outpost for a genuinely mixed community in some areas have a point. For most of us do not live as mere individual consumers of public services, but as active participants in communities, with a far greater sense of place and rootedness than recent generations of decision makers have acknowledged.

The role of schools in creating shared experiences and interests across class and ethnic boundaries – both between pupils and parents – is something of great value. But it is something that is easily eroded especially in an era of choice and consumerism in public services; the school choices that people spontaneously make in the interests of their child can lead to much more monocultural schools than most of say we actually want.


We are all, to some extent, captives of our own experiences. My own experience, of growing up in Luton, an ethnically diverse and historic blue collar town north of London, inevitably shapes my interpretation of what is to be done, so it is worth reflecting upon here.

I attended a comprehensive school, with an intake that was broadly representative of the town at the time; predominantly white British, but with a sizeable minority of Pakistani-Kashmiri and Bangladeshi Asians; Black Caribbean and Africans. It was a popular and successful school, but demand roughly met supply. It meant the intake was more diverse and representative than the immediate catchment, with no one cultural group dominating the culture of this largely secular school. It was, by and large, a cohesive place, that turned out balanced students at ease with people from other groups.

Fast-forward twenty years and schools in Luton South, the seat I represent, face head-winds that previous generations of teachers most definitely did not.

Firstly, the population mix has shifted significantly in the past decade. Across the whole of Luton there has been growth in the Asian population from 33,600 to 50,200; with the Black population increasing from 11,700 to 19,800; and a decline in the White and ‘other’ population in simple number terms, despite a significant increase in overall population. This Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) population is disproportionately young, so demographically is overrepresented in the school age population.

Secondly the other institutions that rooted these groups in a shared project, above all the Vauxhall car plant that employed tens-of-thousands of Luton’s residents (including my own father and his father before him) has gone. The impact of this cannot be underestimated: it has removed a place where immigrants since the 1950s have been absorbed and where they shared similar experiences with the existing population.

Thirdly the impact of government austerity on rapidly growing populations such as that in Luton has been particularly acute. Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme was to rebuild eleven secondary schools across the town – not just to make them look nicer but because we needed to significantly expand capacity. This funding was cancelled in 2010 and not replaced.

Finally, the shortage of housing stock (Luton is built up to its boundary) means that immigrant populations, who remain significantly poorer in most cases than the average, have become more geographically concentrated than ever before. In some cases too the growth in ‘critical mass’ of a minority community has reduced contact with the majority. The nearest primary school to me is 98 per cent South Asian, reflecting the character of the immediate neighbourhood.

In short, it’s harder to draw a mixed intake of school age pupils than ever before and people from different groups are also less likely than previous generations to have shared capital in another ‘rooting institution’ such as a workplace. (For more on this, see Sarfraz Mansoor’s article on Luton).


This experience of moving from a culture in which minorities were absorbed, not always painlessly, into a larger whole to one in which it has become easier to live more separately, has not only happened in Luton.

The last Labour government was aware of the issue and its answer – especially after the 2001 riots—was Community Cohesion.

After the riots the then Home Secretary David Blunkett established a Ministerial Group on Public Order and Community Cohesion to explore how national policies ‘could be employed to promote better community cohesion, based upon shared values and a celebra-tion of diversity’.

In August 2001, Ted Cantle was appointed by Blunkett to Chair the Community Cohesion Review Team and to lead the inquiry into the causes of the summer disturbances in a number of northern towns and cities. The groundbreaking report known as the Cantle Report was duly produced in December 2001 and made around 70 recommendations on strategies to strengthen community cohesion.

The concept of community cohesion was subsequently adopted by the UK Government as the dominant frame for many of the interventions designed to address community tensions. Where they have been successful, community cohesion programmes have reduced tension in local communities mainly by promoting cross cultural contact.

One off-shoot of the community cohesion programme was the Schools Linking Project (SLN) started in 2001 as a local project in Bradford to bring two classes together from very different schools. It grew to become a district-wide project supported by the local authority, and then a nationwide project. Today 14 local authorities participate.

In 2010 Luton was invited to join the project with initial funding from the Department for Education (DfE) and the Pears Foundation. Twenty schools joined the project in the first year with one class each participating in the project. Despite funding cuts in 2012, Luton Borough Council continued to fund the SLN project, recognising it as a fundamental part of the council’s Community Cohesion Strategy. In the current academic year in Luton, 19 schools (38 classes or 1140 children) are taking part in the project. The programme tries to foster understanding of identity, diversity, community and support the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils.

Helpful as these programmes are, community cohesion projects have not been able to prevent the growth of monocultural schools in mixed areas in the past 15 years. A series of sessions where pupils meet people from different backgrounds will never have the impact that the active management of intakes could have.

School segregation, as Ted Cantle has outlined, takes a number of forms, with divisions generally on the basis of social class, ethnicity or faith, with too many schools being exclusively the preserve of one such community. And Cantle argues that little is currently being done to consider the impacts of divided education, let alone address the problem, despite clear evidence that it is increasing.

He is right. I recall meeting education ministers early in this parliament to make the point that every single flagship reform of the coalition government was having a negative impact on community cohesion in my constituency. Their cuts were preventing us from expanding school place capacity, meaning more monocultural intakes. Their free schools preference was preventing us from planning at a local authority level, where a more comprehensive understanding of the impact of schools on cohesion could be best applied. The only groups with an interest in opening new schools would be predominantly monocultural (and so it has come to pass). The emphasis on competition amongst schools would prevent borough-wide planning and tackling the practical day-to-day tensions in our community.

In this government’s model, parents are expected to make empowered choices and define the outcomes they want for their own children, in a framework of overall academic rigour, determined by strong central control. In other words, building the ‘community’ goes actively against responding to the self-interest of the parent and pupil. I fear this will prove as destructive to cohesion as was the unfettered pursuit of wealth creation in a low-regulation financial market; it makes it harder for people to invest their time in building institutions, like a well integrated local school, that quietly generates the social capital a decent society needs.


How can we help schools ensure that their intake is representative of the range of cultures and ethnicities in their local communities? Ted Cantle proposed an admissions policy that avoids having more than 75 per cent of pupils from one culture or ethnic background in multi-cultural areas. He also proposed a review of the recruitment of ethnic minority teachers and governors.

Surely there is merit in exploring whether it would be beneficial to go further than this. One practical proposition – replacing the (now abolished) requirement on schools to promote social cohesion with a requirement to promote the more concrete idea of integration – could be helpful. Schools, of all kinds, should explore ways in which they could better re-flect the ethnic mix of their respective local authority as a whole.

Schools in, say, Ealing may find that reflecting the mix of 30 per cent white British, 40 per cent south Asian and 30 per cent other minority would be better for cohesion than schools dominated by just one group. This will, of course, not always be easy or even possible but trying harder to avoid monocultural schools in mixed areas, through adjusting catchment areas and providing various carrots and sticks to nudge schools in the right direction is a highly desirable, and I would suggest popular, goal of public policy, and could go some way to correcting other inequalities too.

Politicians are understandably nervous of reforms to school admission policies. Some schools still select on the basis of ability, others by location or expressed preferences for subjects. However Cantle is adamant that the most systematic inhibitor of mixing is faith and as the vast majority of faith schools are supported by the state, government must accept responsibility for this. Indeed the UK is one of the few countries that allows selection on the basis of religious preferences according to the OECD.

Equally, it’s worth noting that the case of the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, concerned traditional state, and not faith schools. It was not the selection of pupils by faith, but by geography which led to the conditions in which the schools became dominated by a narrow form of Islam.

The abolition of faith schools is likely to be a policy too far for any likely government. But encouraging the merging of monocultural schools in multi-ethnic areas and the more active promotion and celebration of success stories is far more palatable.

One such merger, which has the potential to be such a success story, has taken place in Oldham which according to Simon Burgess of Bristol University ‘has one of the highest levels of school segregation in England’. The merger between Counthill School, 90 per cent white, and Breeze Hill, almost entirely Pakistani heritage, was very carefully planned and slowly implemented. The merged Waterhead Academy School, a brand new single-building site teaching almost 1,400 children, is now almost three years old and continues to be almost half white British and half British Pakistani.

Before promoting Waterhead as a national model for what can be achieved, the school needs to show it can hold on to its current balance for several more years and also show it can improve educational outcomes in the medium term for both groups. No one should doubt however the tremendous potential for long lasting change and instruction that can be gained as the Oldham story unfolds.

There cannot be a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach on integration issues. And with the advent of greater devolution to the cities, towns, regions and nations of the UK anticipated, there are real opportunities for genuine local autonomy, initiative and decision-making. In this way, by focusing on shaping the environment in which cohesion may come, rather than rejecting the premise that schools have any role to play, or requiring schools to follow national rules, we may in fact see a longer lasting and more rooted community effect.

Correcting inequality and segregation at source is at the very core of the good society. The challenges for achieving greater schools integration in our increasingly multicultural towns and cities will remain. Where there is a divided school there will be a divided community. But an education system that contributes to the cohesion of a town or city benefits the whole community in both the short and the long term.

Rooting this cohesion in a ‘third story’ – neither market nor central state – is essential to encourage the individual and institutional commitments needed. It goes with the grain of human nature; that we are not merely created to compete, but to cooperate too, for the good of the communities we together create.