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Social segregation in schools - where does England rank?

Published: 
23 January 2006

New research by experts at the Universities of Southampton and Essex reveals the extent of social segregation in secondary schools in England. The study challenges views that England has a very high level of social segregation by international standards, and that the majority of the social segregation in England arises out of the existence of private schools.

Social segregation is the uneven distribution across schools of children from different socio-economic backgrounds. It is of interest for several reasons. If children's performance at school depends on their peers, higher levels of social segregation lead to greater inequality in academic achievement and greater inequality in later life. In some circumstances it may even reduce average achievement levels.

This study, which is the first of its kind to compare social segregation in schools across a broad range of countries around the world, places England in the middle ranks of 27 rich industrialised countries. It ranks below high-segregation countries such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Hungary where there are separate school tracks for academic and vocational schooling. It ranks above Scotland and the Nordic countries where there is little selection in schools and at about the same level as the USA.

One of the study's key findings is that social segregation in England is not driven by the existence of private schools. About 80 per cent of segregation is accounted for by the uneven spread of children from different social backgrounds within the state school sector.

Other key findings are:

* Factors likely to be of particular importance in explaining the degree of social segregation are: where parents of different social backgrounds live; how parents choose schools for their children, and how schools choose their pupils.

* Parental choice in England is high by international standards. 52 per cent of children in state schools in England say that they attend their school because it is 'known to be a better school than others in the area'. This is higher than in any other country in the study, and twice the all-country average (25 per cent). However, differences in parental choice across countries are not strongly associated with differences in levels of social segregation.

* Cross-country differences in segregation are associated with the prevalence of selective choice by pupils. Several high-segregation countries have separate academic and vocational secondary school tracks, a specific type of academic selection of pupils. In Austria, Germany and Hungary, over half of the total social segregation is accounted for by unevenness in the spread of children of different social backgrounds between the different school tracks, rather than unevenness in spread within each of the school tracks.

Professor John Micklewright of the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute, one of the study authors, said: "There has long been a debate about social segregation in schools. Many people are concerned that the changes proposed in the current White Paper on education - more choice for parents and greater independence for schools - will increase the already uneven spread of children from different family backgrounds in secondary schools.

"Our research suggests that greater selectivity in admissions by state schools - which the Government claims will not happen - would be likely to increase social segregation, especially if this was coupled with any move towards separate academic and vocational school tracks," he continued.

The research is based on data for 15 year-old children and their schools collected in the 2000 and 2003 rounds of the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), an international survey sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The data for England cover almost 8000 children in over 300 secondary schools. The 27 industrialised countries in the study include most members of the European Union, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Notes for editors

  1. 'Social segregation in secondary schools: how does England compare with other countries?' by Stephen P. Jenkins (University of Essex), John Micklewright (University of Southampton) and Sylke V. Schnepf (University of Southampton) reports on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The report is published as Working Paper 2006-2 of the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex (www.iser.essex.ac.uk) and as Working Paper A06/01 of the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute (S3RI) at the University of Southampton (https://www.southampton.ac.uk/s3ri/).
  2. The University of Southampton is one of the UK's top 10 research universities, with a global reputation for excellence in both teaching and research. With first-rate opportunities and facilities across a wide range of subjects in science and engineering, health, arts and humanities, the University has around 20,000 students and 5000 staff at its campuses in Southampton and Winchester. Its annual turnover is in the region of £274 million.
    Southampton is recognised internationally for its leading-edge research in engineering, science, computer science and medicine, and for its strong enterprise agenda. It is home to world-leading research centres, including the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton; the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research; the Optoelectronics Research Centre; the Textile Conservation Centre; the Centre for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease; and the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies.

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