01 March 2007

Educational equality

A couple of days ago (On the love of scapegoats) I muttered about the tension between need for change and vested interest in power when considering the health of democracy.

Elitism in education is one of the things which sits at the core of that tension. Education systems are simultaneously levers of power and the cradle of our future free thinkers - a significant tension in itself.

Democratisation of education systems tends (though there is no simple mechanistic link) to encourage consideration of change. Elitism within such a system directly influences the host society in a particular direction - usually, though not necessarily, in favour of established power.

Jim Putnam writes (Duke University doesn't understand) about his concerns regarding elitism at one of his local universities. There is, of course, another inherent tension here: a private university cannot, whatever it does, avoid a tendency towards exclusivity. I'm not saying that private education institutions are a bad thing, or that they cannot be a vehicle for enlightenment and change - but the very act of charging for education at the point of delivery will, by definition, exclude those who cannot afford the charge. Scholarships and suchlike can be used to balance this - but the natural gravity of the situation is towards exclusivity. Exclusivity is not the same thing as elitism; but they live in the same neighbourhood.

Private or otherwise, US universities have always been inclined to the same tendency. Europe since the second world war has a more inclusive history, with places allocated on assessment (however imperfect) of ability rather than on ability to pay. But in Britain, at least, the trend is now towards the US model. Far more students now progress up to the level required for university entry than was the case when I was their age, but the financial hurdles they must surmount after that are now far higher and more numerous.

In Britain, the "code of conduct on school admissions" for primary and secondary schools which was emplaced for England in January is an attempt to constrain elitism by requiring that state schools (what the US calls "public schools", a label which means something different in the UK) with more applicants than places should demonstrate unbiased criteria for choosing between them. The most common method of allocation in this situation is by distance: the closer you live to the school, the greater the chance of your child being given a place there. This has a logic to it, and is probably based in concern for child welfare (who wants a child to travel further than is necessary?) but in practice it means that the parents most able to purchase houses close to a popular school are most likely to get their children into that school - financial exclusivity again, by the back door.

As an alternative to the minimum distance mechanism, some schools have experimented with selecting successful applicants by lot - put all the names in a hat, shake it up, then pull out enough to fill the available school places. Yesterday, this method was adopted by a complete local authority (Brighton and Hove, in Sussex). Within her or his geographical catchment area (of which Brighton has six, to avoid excessive travel) each child will attend a school which has been allocated by a lottery. There have, predictably, been vociferous reactions to this by parents who had already sought a particular place for their child. There is an immediate sympathy, of course, for the child who was to have gone to a popular school but will now go to an unpopular one; though each such case is obviously balanced by one who would have been at the unpopular one and is no longer excluded from the popular one. The real answer is that all schools should be made equally "good" - though agreement on what that means would be hard to achieve, and it might not be at all the same thing as "popular".

Lottery seems to me the least undesirable method of allocation. ( I have long been a lonely advocate of the same method for selecting at least a proportion of our legislators - but more of that another day.) Random allocation will, it is to be hoped, not just result in an even and equitable spread of dissatisfaction. It should also mean an even and equitable distribution of parents who are willing to move home to get the sort of school they want for their child - and will, perhaps, be equally willing to exert themselves in support for improving change in the school to which she or he is now allocated. It is, in other words, my best hope for elimination of both elitism and exclusivity in this most crucial of education sectors.

Between university as the upper band of a spectrum and primary/secondary as the lower, there lies the zone known in Britain as Further Education (which, very roughly speaking, approximates to the territory occupied by community colleges and two year universities in the US). Here, a split is looming which threatens a new spirit of exclusion. Until recently, further education colleges in the UK were represented in their dealings with government b the Association of Colleges (AoC). Now, however, another body has emerged: the 157 Group.

Opinions of this group (or, for that matter, of the AoC) are not the point here; the point is their requirements for entry. The AoC admits any college which is prepared to sign up, whereas the 157 Group specify that members must have a turnover of £35m a year and an OFSTED rating of one or two (top of the scale) for management and leadership - a bar explicitly set to gather in those colleges with enough clout to directly get the ear of government. This means that only about 7% of UK FE colleges are eligible for 157 Group membership. Or, looked at through the other end of the telescope, 93% are excluded from effective representation in national level decision making which affects them - and their students.

Equality of opportunity is a widely touted value in western liberal democracies. If it is to mean anything at all, at any level whatever, it must crucially apply to education. Peering into the future, the signals are mixed.

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