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The vote to leave the European union has turned the world upside down. There is a fog of discussion about what the result really meant – are we in a post-liberal world now, or a post-truth one – but one thing is obvious: the Brexit vote revealed, with unprecedented clarity, the extent of the social divisions that wrack the United Kingdom.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the Legatum Institute and the Centre for Social Justice set about analysing the behaviour of voters in an attempt to piece together a coherent and robust narrative about why they behaved as they did. Our 48:52 – Healing a Divided Britain report found that poorer and less-well educated voters were more likely to have voted to leave the EU, as were those who are not in work, those living in council or social housing, and those dependent on a state pension. This is, if you like, a picture of low prosperity Britain, and indeed the Legatum Institute’s UK Prosperity Index, published after 48:52, found a correlation, particularly strong in England, between living in a low prosperity area and a propensity to vote Leave.
But now we find ourselves on the other side of the vote. As the Prime Minister has said, Brexit means Brexit, and time has come to begin to heal those divisions. While it is inevitable that the task of redefining our relationship with the EU will dominate the government’s attention, we must not forget that the primary reason that Britain voted to leave is because of Britons’ faltering relationships with one another. With Disraeli in mind, we need to recognise that there are perhaps not just two nations in Britain but dozens of them, striated by class, of course, but also ethnicity, culture, age, religion and place. How might we be able to bring people together again, to have a more integrated society rather than one that is slowly drifting apart?
It strikes me that there are essential two different societal issues involved here. The first is the impact of multiculturalism. The second is what, in a US context, George W Bush so memorably called the soft bigotry of low expectations – the absence of hope for those people living in the least prosperous parts of the country. Education, particularly school-level education, has a central role to play in solving both problems.
As David Goodhart explains in his book The British Dream, successive governments have pursued a policy of multiculturalism over the last 40 years. This has sought to promote tolerance of, and accommodation with, immigrant communities rather than the more complex challenge of trying to integrate them. Goodhart convincingly argues that this policy has two major flaws – it weakens the bonds necessary for a well-functioning society, and it creates resentment among all groups but especially the host majority.
Through my work with the academy trust Floreat Education, which I founded, I have spent a great deal of time in areas of where there is very little integration, let alone assimilation. People from different religious and ethnic groups live side by side, mainly peacefully, but very little activity – social, civic, economic – crosses these bounds. Lives are lived in parallel, with the Temple, Gurdwara, Mosque or Church usually at the centre of each group’s activities.
At Floreat we actively try to combat this marginalisation in three ways. First, we ensure our pupils have very rigorous literacy and numeracy teaching from a young age so they have the basic skills needed to participate in society. Second, we teach a knowledge-rich academic curriculum that introduces the children to, in Matthew Arnold’s famous words, the best that has been thought and said. This is the only way they will be able to have a powerful voice in Britain’s national conversation. And third, we explicitly and purposefully teach a programme of character virtue development so that our pupils understand that the keys to a life well lived are to be found in all major religions and cultures, and that there is much more that binds us as humans than there is that divides us.
Floreat’s schools are secular and we welcome children from every background, but our approach means that we do not have to downplay the importance of faith and community as a source of strength and inspiration. It is more than just tolerance – it is an activist approach aimed at integrating and assimilating all pupils into the wonderful, tradition-rich but forward-looking culture of modern Britain. Across our three open schools Floreat is not only bringing people together but forging the kind of culture that will give our children a true sense of common purpose throughout their lives.
Rejecting multiculturalism in favour of integration is a challenge mainly centred on cities. For many towns in England the challenge is different – too much educational mediocrity and, as I described it in a 2012 report for Policy Exchange, a long tail of underachievement. The integration required here is not between various minority groups, but rather between one group – often the white working class – and the rest. This is task is largely focused on less prosperous areas, which lack social capital and the critical mass of academic teachers and aspirational parents needed to break out of a culture of underperformance.
Successive governments have been alive to this problem and tried to intervene. City Technology Colleges, Education Action Zones, Teach First, City Academies, the National Teaching Service; they have all been tried and, despite being successful in many areas, some places are stuck. This is the context for the Theresa May’s highly controversial proposals to introduce a new wave of grammar schools.
There are three main proposals for expanding selection in the DfE Green Paper Schools that work for everyone: allowing existing grammar schools to expand, allowing new grammars to set up, and allowing all schools the chance to select some or all of their pupils. The first proposal is much less controversial than the others, so let us set that aside.
The most radical of the ideas in the Green Paper is allowing all schools to select. The evidence about totally selective areas, like Kent or Buckinghamshire, cannot be said to be supportive of a wholesale move to reintroduce selection. Totally selective areas seem to do worse on both social mobility and income inequality, although it is true that for the minority of less well-off children who do get into them they can have a transformative effect. So reintroducing selection across the board seems to be anything but integrative, a point made by campaigners from across the political spectrum.
The idea of allowing a small injection of academic selection into low prosperity areas, where performance is poor, local capacity is weak, and there is a need for an external stimulus, has more potential, however. A new grammar (or, perhaps, a converting independent school) could act as a catalyst for change by raising aspiration, bringing in academic teachers, and then spreading quality throughout the local system. It would be unlikely to drive significant negative performance in a community that is already characterised by low standards.
However, just introducing a new grammar would not be enough. The critical test is not that it raises standards for its own pupils, which it obviously must, but that, in the phrase used by Caroline Hoxby when talking about the potential benefits of school choice, it should be a ‘tide that lifts all boats’. Certain conditions should apply to make sure that everyone benefits from the arrival of a new selective school. The most obvious are limits on pupil numbers, partnering with other schools, increasing the intake from less well-off families, and accountability for performance across the local network of schools.
For example, a new grammar school might be permitted if it provides no more than 5 per cent of local secondary places, sponsors a local multi-academy trust that included low performing schools and feeder primaries, admits a high percentage of less well off pupils, and became a teaching school. This would ensure that one institution was held accountable for the education performance across the ability spectrum while also taking positive steps to increase local capacity.
There is always a danger that policymakers seek to load schools with ever more responsibilities because they are the one moment when young people are in one place for a long time. This urge is usually to be resisted, but the desire to see schools as engines of social integration is perfectly in keeping with their core educational responsibilities. A broad ‘academics + character’ education is not only right in itself but has the happy by-product of binding young people together in a common culture. And spreading the benefits of an aspirational culture – using grammar schools if necessary – to those places that don’t enjoy it is consistent with the view that a core purpose of education should be should be to provide equality of opportunity, so that every child has the chance to become, in Michael Gove’s words, the authors of their own life story.
This article is based on a chapter Lord O’Shaughnessy wrote for the report A Sense of Belonging: Building a more socially integrated society, published by Bright Blue and the Fabian Society, in partnership with The Challenge.