One the UK's most comprehensive investigations into fairness in education has uncovered disturbing failures in the way the system treats children from poorer backgrounds.
The team from The University of Manchester's Centre for Equity in Education, led by Professors Mel Ainscow and Alan Dyson, examined how national strategies for education reform impact on children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Among the findings of their report are:
- Inequalities of funding can cause poor white children struggling with literacy to receive poorer support than children with English as a second language.
- It is increasingly difficult for poorer families to secure places in high achieving schools.
- The policy of choice forces the least popular schools to fill their spare capacity with excluded children and sometimes asylum seekers, placing these schools under extra pressures.
- Competition between schools and colleges of further education is causing chaos in post-16 education.
- Targets to cut numbers of learners missing from school rolls creates a climate where parents are sometimes encouraged to unofficially remove their children from school leaving them without any form of education.
- Pressure from targets to cut numbers of learners missing from school rolls force excluded children into unsuitable schools, making further exclusion likely. Estimates vary from 10,000 to 50,000 children currently out of the system.
- Ethnic segregation in schools is being reinforced as parents seek to send children to schools of the same cultural or ethnic background.
- Many parents ‘play' the admissions system, leading to a lack of choice for ill-informed families – who are also often the most disadvantaged.
Commenting on the findings, Professor Mel Ainscow said:
"In 1997, New Labour had the confidence to set about a programme of radical reform and centrally-driven initiatives to deliver high standards and equity. Our contention is that, as far as equity is concerned, the programme has failed to deliver.
"Our study differs from most research in that it drills down into specific localities and exposes what is really happening on the ground.
"It has shown that greater equity will not be achieved in a centrally controlled, target driven system, in which choice and competition are seen as the key drivers.
"Inequities of funding, access, post-sixteen provision, and dealing with the excluded is now indisputable.
"These patterns are evident in poorer areas across the country and you will find similar problems in all of them."
Professor Alan Dyson added:
"We need to create a system which can meet all learners' needs, while not undermining the importance of maintaining consistently high standards. Current government policies cannot achieve this.
"Instead of seeing education as the major mechanism for overcoming disadvantage, policy has to recognise that strategies to tackle disadvantage and strategies for educational improvement have to go hand in hand.
"Our report details instances of where schools and wider agencies have formulated coherent, unified principles for equitable action.
"It also points to the potentially powerful roles of voluntary and community organisations and of local employers in providing a bridging mechanism between community interests and the education system.
"But it remains to be seen how robust and effective these partnerships prove to be.