Socialism Today   Socialist Party magazine

Institutionalising segregation

HUGO PIERRE, convenor of the Socialist Party’s black and Asian group, argues that expanding the number of schools under religious control will increase the prospects of a dangerous segregation.

ONE OF THE government’s ‘education reform’ proposals is to pass control of more schools to religious or ‘faith’ organisations, arguing that they will drive up standards. Baroness Ashton stated on a Today Programme interview in September that there was clear evidence to show that ‘faith control of schools adds significantly to the standards of a school’.

This emphasis on ‘school standards’ is in keeping with New Labour ideology that a well educated individual will not become ‘excluded’ from society. It is a theme they often use to cover attacks on the welfare state or when they propose more repressive measures on young people in the name of being ‘tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime’.

Yet the riots that tore through some towns in northern England between May and July last year should have warned New Labour not to go down this route. In his report on race relations in Bradford, one of the cities affected, the former Commission for Racial Equality director, Sir Herman Ouseley, warned that already "communities are fragmenting along racial lines. Segregation in schools is one indicator of this trend". This segregation has occurred when the vast majority of religious schools are either Roman Catholic or Church of England: of the existing 6,973 state-funded faith schools, only four are Muslim schools, with a Muslim population in Britain approaching two million. But these warnings are being ignored and the proposals for an expansion of faith schools are still being pursued.

The call amongst some Muslim parents for state funded Islamic schools is now joined by a call amongst some black parents for black-only schools. Lee Jasper, race advisor to London mayor Ken Livingstone, made such a call at the memorial meeting held last year in Lewisham after the suicide of a young black student expelled from his south London school. Racism in the school system was blamed for failing black children and suppressing their educational potential. In fact black Saturday schools have been formed in a number of inner city areas to attempt to raise educational achievements.

Recent studies show that black children enter school as much as 20% above the average level of educational achievement but leave school with 20% less than average qualifications at 16. Pakistani and Bangladeshi children attain approximately the same levels of achievement.

Why do black children under-achieve?

THE BIGGEST FACTOR that determines the likelihood of educational success at school is social class. Studies show that children from families whose parents are manual workers have levels of educational achievement 30% below average. Black and Asian workers are concentrated to a greater extent in the working class, and at the poorer end at that. The average income for blacks is 75% that of whites and for Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers it is two-thirds.

Education is only free in name. A look at the league tables for any borough will show ‘independent’ fee-paying schools at the top, usually with a far higher level of resourcing. Parents in impoverished inner city or ex-industrial towns would not be able to afford to pay for additional resources to match those schools.

Another of the crucial differences between schools will often be the level of selection that takes place. Even in impoverished areas schools that are oversubscribed are able to ‘cherry pick’ their students – as opposed to those that are not popular with parents – with resourcing from the Local Education Authority dependent on the number of pupils on roll. The religious schools have been able to apply different admission criteria to maintain their ‘religious character’, allowing them greater flexibility to select.

School students do not leave their hopes and aspirations, or problems and view of the outside world, at the school gate before they start lessons in the morning. And the school system, under pressure from league tables, open enrolment, formula funding, and massive underfunding and shortages, is less tolerant of students as individuals than it has ever been. One factor behind the high rates of exclusion of black children is the pressure on schools to get rid of anyone who will ‘damage the school’s reputation’ or discipline policy. UNISON was forced to conclude in a study on truancy it undertook with CETSW (a national social work organisation), that schools needed to become ‘child friendly’ if they were ever going to tackle this problem!

Many black children may not identify racism as the biggest or even a significant problem for them at school. More significantly they identify the school regime – their views not being taken seriously and the lack of relevance of the school curriculum to the outside world – as reasons why they lose interest in school. But one of the biggest factors is the discrimination they see on a daily basis in the communities in which they live. The high levels of black youth unemployment (33% on average) significantly depress their overall expectations of whether or not a decent education is worth having.

Schools have become far less overtly racist over the last 15 years largely due to the battles waged through the teaching unions. The casual racism catalogued in a 1980s report following the murder of an Asian school student in Manchester generally no longer exists. But an anti-racist education with a clear class understanding of racism is not, of course, promoted by the education establishment. The multi-cultural philosophy which is presented can not by itself answer the real problems in areas where segregation is high and real bridges need to be built.

Schools have often seen how incidents in the local community can further polarise and increase segregation in schools. After the murder of a white boy in Somers Town in the mid-1990s, a pupil at South Camden Community School in North London, many white parents in the local area withdrew their children from the school and sent them to schools further away, even though the incident was not related to the school. This led to the school becoming a predominantly black school for a number of years, which was not a reflection of the local area.

Is more religious involvement the answer?

THE SPURIOUS CLAIMS made about the levels of achievement in church schools are a cover for driving through more counter-reforms in the education system. There is clear evidence that far from improving achievement church schools often select out the more ‘problematic’ children. Camden has three primary schools in the Somers Town area of which one is Catholic, one Anglican, and one is secular. Forty-two per cent of the children attending the Catholic school and 40.4% of those at the Anglican school receive free school meals (a measure of parental income), compared to 54.7% at the secular school. This is repeated throughout the borough where 47.9% of primary and 37.6% of secondary school children receive free school meals at secular schools compared to only 36.8% at primary and 19.4% at secondary level of children in religious schools. The poorer you are the less chance you have of getting into the ‘schools of God’!

The same applies to children who require extra support because they have a Special Educational Need. One in five of Camden’s secondary school pupils require this support in the secular schools compared to one in ten in the religious schools. Poor students, or students with difficulties or problems, are sifted out by church schools who don’t want to tarnish their image for prospective parents (and thereby endanger their formula funding if school rolls are not filled).

But Camden also has a racial divide which follows the religious one. The religious primary schools in Somers Town have an average of 30% of their students who are African or Bangladeshi but the secular school has 70%. In fact 60% of the secular school’s students are Bangladeshi when the Catholic school has none! This segregation is repeated in the secondary schools.

As socialists we defend the right to religious expression. But religion should be separated from the state. It has no place in the running of schools as it is a barrier to the unity of the working class and encourages segregation of workers. It is no wonder that, with a sectarian school system, a recent Royal Geographical Society report showed that 68% of young people in Northern Ireland had not had a meaningful conversation with a member of the other religious community. Even in towns such as Oldham, racial divisions are enhanced by religious schools and are not broken down easily when young people are forced together later at college level.

Expanding the number of faith schools will worsen the segregation. Nor will it bring equality for Muslims, for example, with other religious communities; as it has not done so in the case of Irish descendants, who also face significant discrimination in Britain. But the government’s proposals go even further because they advocate allowing secular schools to become religious schools. Making limited concessions to religious groups which are not properly explained, particularly where there is competition for resources, can lead to explosive situations and a chance for racists to exploit the resultant tensions. What would happen, as could happen in many areas throughout the country (against the backdrop of an under-resourced education system), if schools with large Muslim populations wanted to turn their local secular school into a Muslim school?

Experience internationally has shown that closing down secular schools has not increased religious tolerance but has decreased it. Saudi Arabia has a very high proportion of graduates but over 50% of them graduated in Islamic studies. Then there is the experience of Pakistan and Bangladesh where IMF liberalisation policies closed down large numbers of state funded schools for them to be replaced by Islamic or madrassa schools (which have often forced girls out of education completely). How soon before right-wing Christian groups insist on teaching creationist theories as opposed to evolution, as has happened in several ‘bible-belt’ schools in the USA?

What of black schools? The plight of black students is a badge of shame on the state system, but under capitalism would there be any improvement? Would bullying of black children stop? The horrific murder of Damilola Taylor was a tragic case that shows the opposite. Black Saturday schools have been in operation for over 20 years in Britain but in this time blacks have still fallen behind on average. The experience of the US also shows that with an extensive network of black schools and colleges, educational achievement still lags behind. Many US blacks still use the armed forces (27% black – twice the percentage in the population) as their route to gaining higher education. Only the middle class few gain access to the black colleges.

The Socialist Party believes that all schools should be brought under public control to ensure real neighbourhood schools, enabling all of the talents and experiences of school students to be shared and developed. This would take place with the resources available to develop the whole child and not just the parts capitalist society requires for their immediate exploitation. There would be no place for schools controlled by religious organisations. But education is intimately linked to class and the abolition of class society would lead to those resources being freed and young people having an optimistic outlook for their future, the bedrock for encouraging the exploration of knowledge.


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