Social segregation in state schools widens Britain’s education inequality

If COVID-19 has achieved one thing, it has unmasked the yawning gaps in Britain’s education system. The variation of educational provision during lockdown was extremely mixed, with experts warning of huge gaps in learning, not only between the private and state schools, but within the state sector between middle class pupils and those from less well-off backgrounds.  

Unicef defines education inequality as some children doing worse at school than their peers because of circumstances beyond their control, such as where they were born, their parents’ occupation, and the language they speak. 

In its ‘An Unfair Start: Inequality in Children’s Education in Rich Countries’ document, Unicef explores the educational inequalities in 41 of the world’s richest countries. The UK ranks 16th from the top in terms of educational inequality during secondary school years – a dispiriting statistic for the world’s fifth largest economy. 

Following three months of lockdown and nationwide attention on the unfairness of the 2020 exam results, charity Teach First issued a report highlighting the ongoing attainment gap in GCSE English and Maths. The report shows that in 2019, before the pandemic and this year’s controversial exam results, only 45% of disadvantaged children passed their Maths and English GSCEs. This compared to 72% of their more affluent classmates. 

Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First, said: “Inequality in exam results is hardly unique to this year. This report has laid bare that due to unequal access to a brilliant education, pupils from wealthier homes are awarded better results than their peers year after year. 

“To tackle this once and for all we must prioritise investment in schools in low-income areas to build a fairer, thriving society,” Hobby added. 

Social segregation and state schools 

Pupils’ postcodes are a dictating component in education inequality in Britain. A quarter of high-performing schools in Britain provide significantly fewer placements to disadvantaged children in their neighbourhood. This clear social segregation was the finding of  research by the Sutton Trust, which found that more than two fifths of headteachers failed to consider the socioeconomic background of their communities when designing admission policies. 

According to Sutton Trust, the highest performing schools accept about half the rate of disadvantaged students compared to the national average. Out of the 1,500 teachers surveyed for the report, around 70% said that reducing social segregation would close the attainment gap among students. 

The Trust notes how the school admissions system based on parents making preferred choices system isn’t working for everyone because only better off families can afford to live near high-performing schools. 

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Our school system is highly socially segregated. Schools with well-off intakes sit alongside those with high levels of disadvantage, and low and moderate income families are less likely to access the highest performing schools.”

The discussion over the allocation of places by proximity to well-performing schools favouring the wealthy takes me to Cheadle Hulme, an affluent suburb of Stockport, Greater Manchester. 

With a Waitrose supermarket occupying a former carpark, and a trendy Gusto restaurant now a stylish landmark on a high street that was once home to a Wetherspoon’s Pub and a neighbouring bookie, signs of gentrification are everywhere in Cheadle Hulme. It’s safe to say the Stockport suburb is “posher” than it was 20 years ago. 

The average price of a property in Cheadle Hulme is £328,251, significantly higher than the wider Stockport region’s average of £229,454.

Cheadle Hulme High School (CHHS) has been an academy since 2012.  The academy is the founder school of the Laurus Trust, a multi-academy trust. With a reputation locally, and further afield, for outstanding teaching and learning, which, in 2019, came in the top 3% of schools national for pupil progress, the academy is hugely oversubscribed.  

It could be argued that fierce competition for placements at the school is driving house prices in the area up, as parents move far and wide to live close by. 

One mum, whose child attends CHHS, said: “We moved to Cheadle Hulme a couple of years ago, a move that has tied us into a hefty mortgage for the next 25 years. I have to admit, the primary reason for the move was to get my children a place at CHHS.” 

It has long been surmised that good schools push house prices up in Britain. What once could only be described as speculation and “middle class chatter at dinner parties” has been officially confirmed by research by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP).  

CEP’s research shows that a primary school one standard deviation above the average in terms of pupil performance in Key Stage 2 tests, attracts a house premium of around 3%. Concurrently, a school at the top of the performance league table would attract a house price premium of around 12% compared to a school at the bottom of the table. 

Aiming at combating the social segregation within school admissions, in 2018 Laurus Cheadle Hulme opened, also part of the Laurus Trust. The school aims to serve a “very polarised cohort”, stating its catchment covers a “wide spectrum of deprivation… serving some of the most deprived areas and some of the most affluent areas of Stockport.” 

While academy trusts like Laurus are at least observing and attempting to curb postcode barriers and social segregation through a so-called “polarised cohort”, the only way to guarantee placements at well-performing schools is to live within the catchment. And with outstanding schools driving house prices up in local areas, families who can’t afford to live in close proximity are being driven out of the placement market. 

A mum who lives in Heald Green, a suburb of Stockport, which borders Cheadle Hulme and is less than 2.5 miles from Laurus Cheadle Hulme, failed to get a placement for her daughter at both CHHS and Laurus Cheadle Hulme. The average house price in Heald Green stands at £287,062  - a 1% rise since 2019 - and £41,189 less than neighbouring Cheadle Hulme, where house prices have risen by 6% since 2019. 

“I was disappointed my daughter didn’t get placements at either Cheadle Hulme schools. Even after putting forward valid arguments against the decision, our appeal was rejected. I feel my daughter is missing out on an outstanding education because we don’t live in a catchment where house prices are, on average, notably higher,” the mum commented. 

A similar story can be found at West Hall School in Stalybridge, an all-boys school that was given academy status in 2011 and voted the best secondary school in Tameside in 2017. House prices in Tameside are among the lowest in Greater Manchester, standing at an average of £167,793

Despite being a considerably more affordable borough, houses close to West Hall School sell for markedly higher prices. In 2017, houses near the sought-after school were selling for £180,082, more than £27,000 higher than the borough’s average. 

Escalating house prices near outstanding schools means the current system of allocating places by proximity to schools is essentially favouring the better off, contributing to the “unequal access to a brilliant education” Russell Hobby of Teach First warns about.  

Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead is a British freelance author and journalist, and founder of copywriting service providers, PW Copy. Much of Gabrielle’s work is focused on building awareness about social and economic inequality and and sparking debate and action for activism and change.

You can follow Gabrielle @GabsP78.

- Gabrielle Pickard Whitehead