Government's obsession with faith and free schools 'breeds social and racial segregation'

Exclusive: Chair of Social Integration Commission says Government has ignored impact of education policies, and calls for schools to monitor how well children from different backgrounds and ethnicities are mixing

Emily Dugan@emilydugan
Wednesday 31 December 2014 20:01
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Schools are largely failing to bring different communities together in contrast to higher education, argues Matthew Taylor. File photo
Schools are largely failing to bring different communities together in contrast to higher education, argues Matthew Taylor. File photo

Segregation between different classes and ethnicities in Britain is worsening due to increasing numbers of faith schools and the opening of free schools, a leading campaigner on social equality has warned.

Matthew Taylor, the respected chair of the Social Integration Commission, called on governors to issue regular reports on how their pupils are mixing to prevent serious divisions in society – saying that Muslim schools were of particular concern as their intakes tend to be less diverse.

Arguing that schools were largely failing to bring different communities together in contrast to higher education, the former adviser to Tony Blair told The Independent that the Government must take responsibility.

There had been “a certain amount of carelessness” in schools policy, he said, amid a “sense that the really important thing is that we have more schools and more faith schools and more free schools”.

“If you were in the Department for Education [DfE] and said, ‘A lot of these schools are not terribly integrated places’, you’d have been brushed aside and told, ‘Well that’s not actually a priority and that’s not the important thing, the important thing is that we have got more of these institutions’,” he said.

“It’s more by negligence than anything, I don’t think that the Government has deliberately promoted segregation but I think sometimes it pursues policies which are anti-integration and it isn’t sufficiently aware of that.”

Social segregation is already costing the British economy £6bn a year, recent research from the Commission has found. The study showed Britons increasingly seek the company only of those most like themselves, with profound consequences.

The resulting drop in social mobility and increased isolation between groups means that problems are emerging in areas from employment to health, costing the UK the equivalent of 0.5 per cent of GDP.

The Social Integration Commission, whose panel members also include the Wellington College headmaster Anthony Seldon, former Equalities and Human Rights Commission chair Trevor Phillips, and Oxford University psychologist Professor Miles Hewstone, was set up by The Challenge charity to report on how the UK can improve its record for social mobility and inter-community contact.

Experts cite schools as one of the best places to foster social integration, but Mr Taylor believes this opportunity is often being missed.

“Colleges and universities are pretty good at mixing people but schools aren’t very good at mixing people,” he said. “That’s for two reasons, firstly because schools are too divided in their intake and not enough is being done to overcome that.

“Secondly, even when the kids do arrive in the school, very often the schools don’t pay sufficient attention to the fact that there are very, very different groups in the playground and they don’t attend to the need to bring them together.”

He added: “One of the ways in which we should be preparing young people for the world in which they’re going to live is getting them used to and relaxed about mixing with people from different classes, different ages and different ethnicities.”

He cautioned that without action on integration, Britain’s society would be characterised by “ugly” divisions.

“Britain’s becoming more diverse and if we don’t think about this and we’re not willing to act on it, the danger is that we’ll become more separate…. There’ll be far too many places which feel like they’re just for the well-off and far too many places which feel like they’re just for the poor; there’ll be far too many schools which feel like they’re just for one minority group or just for one social class.”

Muslim faith schools were singled out by Mr Taylor as having a particular problem. “We have to recognise that Muslim faith schools seem to be much more monocultural than Catholic faith schools or Church of England faith schools.

“It’s a very difficult policy because if you have Catholic and Church of England faith schools you can’t really deny the need for Muslim faith schools, but there is a different character, they tend to be much less diverse.”

He said he does not advocate banning faith schools, but believes they should be more carefully checked for their integration efforts.

“You can’t deny people’s desire for faith schools if you support faith schools. What you can do is to really demand that those schools demonstrate that they are actively working to connect with other schools of other faiths and no faith.

“I would be very strict about saying those schools have got to demonstrate that they are making real efforts to ensure that the children in those schools who are now spending 9am till 3.30pm only with people of a similar ethnic background [are] doing stuff to make sure that they are out of that in extracurricular activities. In other words, mixing up.”

Mr Taylor said he would not want integration added to Ofsted’s inspection criteria because “schools have got enough pressures on them”. But he added: “I think schools should be asked to report on their level of integration and their strategies for integration... I think it’d be a great question to ask school governors: what are you doing to make sure the pupils in your school are mixing with a broader cross-section of society?”

A DfE spokesman said: “Our plan for education is designed to ensure every child of whatever background leaves school prepared for life in modern Britain.... We have strengthened guidance to ensure all schools actively promote fundamental British values and that these are woven throughout the curriculum.

“Faith schools are an important part of our diverse education system and are popular with parents. We have made sure that all new faith academies and free schools can only prioritise half of their places according to the faith, while two-thirds of new free schools have been created in some of the most deprived areas of the country.”

Profile: Matthew Taylor

A former chief adviser to Tony Blair, he played a leading role in putting together Labour policies after the 1997 election. Shortly before Gordon Brown became PM he moved to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce as chief executive.

After leaving Downing Street he spoke of the conflicts between Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Blair-Brown era as leaving staff feeling like “children in a dysfunctional relationship where mum and dad are too busy arguing to ever talk to the kids”.

From 1999 to 2003 he was Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank.

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