British schools: the leaving age and “Apartheid”

Picture of Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of UK schoolsChris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of British schools, has been in the news twice this week, the first occasion when he proposed that the school leaving age should be 14, so as to “give less academic students a better chance of learning a trade”, and the second in which he defended British schools against a claim that was made (by the head of a prestigious London private school, who grew up in South Africa) that parts of the UK are “sleepwalking into Apartheid” with schools in some areas being dominated by people of one background and people generally not leaving those areas (the story was in the Guardian, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph and it was on the BBC London breakfast news programme which you should be able to listen to online for a week afterwards). Woodhead also said it was “morally wrong” for private schools to sponsor academies, as the time their teachers spent teaching the academy pupils would not benefit the children whose parents paid the fees.

About the so-called apartheid situation: this has been said before, notably by Trevor Phillips in 2006 (see earlier entry). Darcus Howe responded to it in the New Statesman at the time, with reference to the supposedly segregated London suburb of Norbury (!):

This community, I warned the attentive audience, was not sleepwalking. The evidence indicates the opposite: a dynamic section of the population which has painstakingly reconstituted a high street on its last legs into a vibrant, multicultural place. To describe us as segregated borders on abuse. All are free to come and go. There is always a coming and a going as communities change to accommodate the new.

I have travelled through the Deep South in America and I know what segregation is. Its defining characteristic is that it is always organised and perpetuated by a racist state power. So, too, in South Africa.

I joined the passengers who cram the trains to Victoria, cheek by jowl. Whites are huddled next to blacks. Asians are crushed up against Africans. And when they arrive at work Muslims and Christians are set in motion beside each other; they join trade unions together and discuss the latest fashions together.

I would have thought that anyone who would compare London to South Africa (or the Jim Crow-era Deep South) would never have experienced the real thing, but clearly David Levin did, but the use of “apartheid” to refer to communities sticking to their own kind, to a certain extent, smacks of cheap and alarmist political posturing. Although parts of Tower Hamlets are indeed dominated by certain ethnic minorities (Bengalis and Somalis, for example), Peckham is a very mixed area (although the estates of North Peckham are less so, and more impoverished), but even so, that part of Tower Hamlets that is most dominated by those minorities is one of the areas that was not hit by the rioting in August, so they must be doing something right. Very large parts of the country hardly see a brown face in years, while people are free to pass through Whitechapel and Stepney, go to college there, shop at the market and, if they so choose, live there, regardless of their race or religion. Perhaps someone who isn’t Bengali and/or Muslim would feel less comfortable, but I expect the local people would not feel very comfortable in one of the hundreds of thousands of mostly-white suburbs and English villages. Mr Levin’s own school is in some sense a ghetto, offering its services only to those whose parents can pay the fees (i.e. the rich), with a small number of scholarships, perhaps. I’m sure he does not employ police with water cannons or billy-clubs, or a secret police, or lynch mobs to keep the hoi polloi out, and neither do you find these things in the suburbs were large numbers of ethnic minorities live. That’s what distinguishes segregation or Apartheid.

Chris Woodhead, in his interview on BBC London this morning, did not address the inappropriate use of the term “apartheid” but disagreed with Levin’s claims, and opposed bussing children from one suburb to another so as to artificially produce a mixed environment, and suggested that people often feel more comfortable with many of those of their religion or culture, rather than being the only one among a sea of others.

Earlier this week, he said in an interview with the Times (which is paywalled, but there is a synopsis at BBC News) in which he suggested cutting the school leaving age to 14 and opposed the government’s scheme in which independent schools sponsored academies. As far as the school leaving age goes, this is something I have said here before: keeping youths who are not interested in learning in formal education up to 16 makes schools less productive for everyone, because many of these pupils will simply disrupt others’ learning. Over the past couple of generations, more and more young people have stayed in education for longer, increasingly by necessity as qualifications that relatively few people received in the past are now standard. At the same time, vocational qualifications and apprenticeships have become fewer and further between. Those of us who stayed on into further education in the past remember sixth form and university as the best part of our education, largely because we were surrounded by people who wanted to be there and were interested in what was being taught. It may also be beneficial to a school environment that there not be too many older (and bigger and physically more adult) pupils who are less interested in learning, and more inclined to cause trouble.

The problem is that there needs to be opportunities for the early leavers, so perhaps trade schools could be set up for pupils who have a firm idea of what trade they want to go into at that age, and they could also form partnerships with major employers. The state should also, however, invest in adult education so that those who were not inclined to learn while in adolescence, or whose home or school environment did not permit it, could complete their education later — again, in the company of those who choose to be there rather than being forced.

Where I cannot possibly agree is his suggestion that it is “morally wrong” for independent schools to be called on to support academies, because the teachers’ time would be taken away from attending to the children of the fee-payers. Private schools are mostly bastions of privilege (and those that are not, like the handful of shoestring religious schools, are unlikely to be involved in this). Schools are places where children are set up for the adult world and have the opportunity to work for qualifications that they will need in adult life. While I question the motivation of having such a scheme only for academies, and not for mainstream comprehensives (i.e. it gives the academies a prestige that other state schools lack), it is only right that private schools, which have charitable status and the favourable tax regime that entails, should be expected to provide services to the community rather than simply to fee paying customers, and that those who got lucky should not be able to isolate themselves and their children in a bubble of privilege when they have, most likely, benefited from public services (often including education) themselves in the past.

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