“Sleepwalking towards Johannesburg”? Ethnic segregation in London’s secondary schools
Recently the vice-chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference caught the media’s eye. He expressed concern about racial segregation in London schools, saying, “it can’t be a good thing for London to be sleepwalking towards Johannesburg.”
Those are headline-grabbing words but are they true? Do black or Asian pupils fill classrooms almost exclusively in some parts of the capital? The short answer is yes, they do. But, like most short answers, it is an over-simplification.
A new working paper published by CMPO today offers a new methodology for comparing differences in the ethnic compositions of locally competing secondary schools. It finds schools in London that in the academic year 2008-9 had a majority of their intake comprised by pupils of Black African heritage, some that were majority Black Caribbean, and others that were almost wholly Bangladeshi, or Indian.
Those concentrations reflect the residential geographies of where particular ethno-cultural groups live in London, with the geographies being shaped by historical and on-going processes of labour shortages, immigration, natural growth and suburbanisation (Finney & Simpson 2009: a highly recommended read). However, the differences between schools cannot solely be attributed to residential choices and subsequent constraints on which secondary schools the pupils attend because the paper uses an index of difference to compare schools that are recruiting pupils from one or more of the same primary schools. In this way it finds a secondary school that has thirty percentage points more Black African pupils than its average, locally competing school, a school that has thirty percentage points more Black Caribbean pupils, one that has forty points more Bangladeshi pupils, and another with sixty points more Indians.
So, there are differences between schools locally and some of those differences are quite stark. Nevertheless, we need to be wary of assuming the most extreme cases are representative of the norm. More commonly the differences do not veer too greatly from what would occur if all pupils simply attended the nearest secondary school to their primary. There is also little, if any, evidence to suggest the local differences between schools are growing, at least not when demographic changes are taken into consideration.
Of course, the debatable words are “too greatly”. For anyone who would aspire for schools either to represent the ethnic mix of their surrounding neighbourhoods or, even better, to ameliorate residential differences by being better mixed than neighbourhoods, any increase in the concentration of particular ethnic groups in particular schools will be a disappointment – a sentiment that is laudable. However, there are social justice arguments in favour of school choice and in not simply reproducing patterns of, for example, neighbourhood disadvantage by directing which school a pupil must necessarily attend. Choice, precisely because it is choice, can produce outcomes that some do not approve of but that are attractive, for whatever reasons, to those who make the choices. To deny them that choice, either directly or indirectly by overt criticism of their choices, raises issue of power as well as equality of opportunity.
There are three further reasons why the suggestion of ethnic segregation can be misleading. First, school allocations are not necessarily a matter of choice but of the overall matching of supply and demand for school places. Second, sorting by ethnicity may be confounded with sorting by income. In 2008, the Spearmen’s rank correlation between the proportion of pupils in a London secondary school of any of the Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani groups, with the proportion eligible for free school meals was rS = 0.568 (p < 0.001). Third, research by the Runnymeade Trust has shown overall preferences among minority ethnic parents for their children to attend ethnically mixed schools (Weekes-Bernard 2007).
In summary, and taking the evidence in the round, whilst it is undoubtedly true to say that some but a few secondary schools in London contain a high proportion of a single ethnic group, the dynamic implied by the phrase “sleepwalking” is, as other studies have also discovered, unhelpful (Johnston et al. 2007).
Finney, N. & Simpson, L., 2009. “Sleepwalking to segregation”? Challenging myths about race and migration, Bristol: The Policy Press.
Johnston, R. et al., 2007. “Sleep-walking towards segregation?” The changing ethnic composition of English schools, 1997-2003: an entry cohort analysis. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33(1), pp.73-90.
Weekes-Bernard, D., 2007. School Choice and Ethnic Segregation, London: The Runnymeade Trust.