In some local authorities, mostly in inner London, this has been the case for more than a decade. But by 2009, Greater London, Birmingham, Leicester, Slough and Luton all boasted majority ethnic-minority secondary school systems, with Manchester and Bradford not far behind at 43%. In inner London that figure reached 67%.
There have, of course, been major changes in the ethnic composition of Britain over the last 20 to 30 years. The non-white ethnic minority population has grown from around 1% in 1951 to over 10% in 2009, and will continue to grow as a result of both immigration and the higher birth rates of some ethnic minority groups. This growth is seen first in the delivery wards of hospitals, then in primary and secondary schools.
Back in 2005 Trevor Phillips, director of the Commission for Racial Equality, caused a furore by suggesting that in terms of its ethnic minority population, Britain was “sleepwalking to segregation”. His assertion was challenged by several academics who argued that, rather than increasing segregation, the dominant pattern was likely to be one of increasing dispersal and diffusion. Only recently, however, the headmaster of City of London school, David Levin, was quoted as saying that pupils are now being “taught in ghettos” in inner-city London. So was Phillips right all along?
Using Department for Education data for 1999 and 2009, I looked at the extent to which ethnic minorities were becoming more or less concentrated in local authority school systems. In my view, the results offer some cause for concern, but also much cause for optimism.
The percentage of ethnic minority pupils in English secondary schools as a whole grew from 11.5% to 17% over the 10-year period. This means there are still large and typically more rural areas of the country where the percentage of ethnic minority pupils is very low. Yet even in these areas, the concentrations of ethnic minorities typically still doubled or trebled from 1-3% to 4-5% in a decade. And across the whole country the clear trend is towards outward dispersal and diffusion, often into more affluent suburban areas that display greater levels of home ownership, educational attainment and aspiration, and employment opportunities. Such a trend is, I believe, beneficial for the country as a whole, both socially and economically.
But what about in our most densely populated cities: is “ghettoisation” a genuine phenomenon there? In fact, most parents in east London, where we have done detailed research, said they were broadly supportive of the idea of ethnic mix, seeing it as both desirable and reflective of the society in which we now live. A problem may occur, though, when parents with children from any background perceive that their children are to be educated in a small minority, and instead opt for other schools or move out of the area. Then, ethnic segregation in schools may be increased as a result of parental avoidance strategies.
The issue of language is also important; recent figures showed that 50% of inner-London pupils did not have English as their first language, which can pose problems for both teaching and learning. But this is just one of a host of factors that can determine school performance.
Overall, there are well known and long-standing differences between ethnic groups in educational attainment at GCSE and beyond. At the top end, Indian and Chinese children consistently outperform other groups, including white pupils, while black Caribbean boys tend to significantly underperform, with major implications for university entrance and labour market opportunities. Some argue this is a result of inbuilt discrimination in schools; others point to cultural and social characteristics, such as the strong stress on education and attainment in the Chinese and Indian communities.
Nonetheless, I do not believe we are seeing the “ghettoisation” of ethnic minorities in the English school system, even in cities like London with very high and growing proportions of ethnic minority pupils. Both nationally and in London, the dominant trend is of outwards diffusion and dispersal of ethnic minority pupils to the suburbs and beyond; Asian and mixed ethnicity groups are decentralising away from inner-cities quite rapidly.
But it is also clear that the ethnic composition of the school system has changed irreversibly, and will continue to change as the size of the country’s ethnic minority population continues to grow. Starkey is correct when he says Britain was a largely white monoculture 30-40 years ago – but that is no longer true, certainly not in our inner-city schools.