Johann Hari: The ideological tug-of-war over our schools

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Can you hear the grunts? Can you smell the sweat? There is currently a heaving, ideological tug-of-war between Labour and the Conservatives, with Britain's schools acting as the rope. This contest could decide the life-chances of millions of kids, but you wouldn't know it from the shrieking coverage, which has been reduced to Balls – and balls.

Over the past few weeks, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, has been trying to push Britain's schools in a direction that every major piece of educational research indicates will produce better results – especially for the poorest children.

The Tories and the press have ignored his arguments and described him as "mad". The debate was instantly reduced to the dumbest possible level when Balls's Conservative shadow, Michael Gove, accused him of implementing these changes simply because he wants to be Labour leader. As a canny former journalist, Gove knew lazy lobby journalists would always rather cover a leadership-gossip story than a policy debate – and he was right. The losers are you, the public, who haven't been told what's going on.

Ed Balls seems to have done something unusual for a Schools Secretary: he has looked at the rock-solid evidence of what makes schools succeed or fail.

Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the US-based Century Foundation, summarises it well: "Most conventional education reforms assume there will be separate schools for rich and poor, and try to increase equality between them. From school vouchers to academies to class-size reduction, mainstream political efforts ignore a central finding of education research: schools that are majority poor tend to fail to produce high levels of academic achievement, no matter what."

If a school is piled up with kids from poor families, it will become a poor school. No matter how good the teachers, they will fail. As one bruised headteacher recently told me: "It is impossible to keep a school disciplined and together if a majority of the children come from chaotic families where they have to be persuaded by us every day that education is worthwhile."

It sounds depressing. But the research also points to something extraordinary: if those poor children are broken up and distributed throughout the education system, learning alongside middle-class and rich kids, they start to do far better. For example, Wake County in North Carolina decided in 2000 to pass a simple rule: no school is allowed to have more than 40 per cent of pupils on free school meals. So, instead of being clumped together in ghetto-schools, the poor kids fanned out across the county. What was the result? In 2006, 60.5 per cent of low-income students passed their exams – compared to 43 per cent under the old system. And the middle-class kids who were suddenly learning alongside children from the trailer parks did not suffer: their results remained the same.

This helps us to understand what is going wrong in our school system. Since the 1970s, British schools have been steadily segregated according to social class. The rich have their private schools; the middle classes have their grammar schools and "comprehensives", where there is selection by house price; and the poor have ghetto schools.

We have called these segregated schools "comprehensive", but they are not. A real comprehensive is one where all the local kids – whatever their income – learn together. But under our segregated system, the rich and middle class do fairly well by international standards, while the poor are shockingly failed: just 21 per cent on free school meals get five good GCSEs.

To understand the difference between a real comprehensive and a ghetto comp, look at this fact from the 2005 US National Assessment of Educational Progress. You can take a pair of twins living on a rundown housing estate, and send the boy to a school that has a broad mixture of classes, and the girl to a school that is mostly poor. By their last year at school, the brother will have spurted a full two years ahead of his sister. She will never catch up with his income or achievements. Today, we are treating most of our low-income children like that girl.

So Balls seems to be asking: how can we treat them more like her brother? How do we stop poor children being clustered together in failure, but instead spread them out for success? This can all be couched in a way that flatters Middle England, rather than attacks them. You, your kids and your values are a great asset: we want to harness them for the whole country. And it will help you in turn. Do you want your children to grow up alongside a swollen, angry underclass, or a working class equipped to thrive in a globalised economy?

Under Tony Blair, we had a succession of Education Secretaries who mostly maintained social segregation in schools. Balls is – at last – breaking with that by tackling the most blatant attempts to keep poor children out of middle-class schools.

When a school tells parents they have to make a fat cash donation every term – £995 in one Barnet school – they are obviously saying "no council estate kids here". When a school demands to know your job or whether you are married, they are screening out the poor and single mums. When grammar schools ensure fewer than one per cent of their intake is on free school meals, compared to 17 per cent in the wider population, they are systematically excluding the poor.

There is now a swelling gap between Labour and the Tories. Labour wants to make our schools more economically integrated and is pushing through a series of moves: the school lottery system introduced in Brighton, the banning of parental interviews and the crackdown on cheating by faith and grammar schools (they need to do far more though: why not copy the Wake County model?).

The Tories, by contrast, want to move in the opposite direction. They have kicked Balls for trying to make these schools take more poor kids, with David Cameron calling it "crazy". Instead, they want to imitate the Swedish model, where parents can set up their own schools and receive funding from the state. But this has actually increased social segregation in Swedish schools, and even their centre-right government is backing down. On top of this, they will shut down SureStart centres, and cancelling the Educational Maintenance Allowances which give £30 a week to skint students to stay on at sixth-form college.

This is a hefty democratic choice. Perhaps Middle England does want to wall off their children's playgrounds from the council estates and leave those kids to curdle. Or perhaps they want a society where all our children learn together, and everybody has a chance to get ahead. But if all we do is ignore this debate and scream about trivia (does Balls want to be leader? Is he winking at the backbenches?) we will never know.

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