Friday, 27 April 2007

“Little black boys will join hands with little white boys as brothers.”

British schools face US-style segregation according to Nick Johnson, Director of policy and public sector at the Commission for Racial Equality.

The problem is at its most acute in areas where racial minorities make up a greater proportion of the population than the national average of 8 per cent. Mr. Johnson’s fear is that this will lead to greater alienation, as children grow up never mixing with peers from other races.

Mr. Johnson’s solution is typically Statist. Schools are to be required to have “a balanced and diverse intake”, and the amount of money they receive may be affected by their success in meeting this target. It is sad that Mr. Johnson has not learnt the lessons of the last decade. Government targets do not lead to better public services overall; they merely lead to public services that better meet the targets. Hospitals must see every patient within 18 weeks, so now every patient has to wait 17 weeks to be seen, and may then be seen for a cursory appointment to ensure that the target is met before being referred to the next waiting list. Schools’ incomes are dependent on the number of children getting higher GCSEs, so they concentrate on children on the borderline of grades C and D to the exclusion of those expected to get very low or very high grades.

Hospital and school managers are only human, and are as likely to game the system as anyone else. The result of this scheme is likely to be schools aiming to achieve exactly the amount of racial integration necessary to gain the financial bonus: no less, no more. Whether this is in the interests of the individual child will be less important than whether the school has more money to spend on children in aggregate. And as Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics at Bristol University, notes, there may be benefits for some children in working with peers from the same background.

In fact, schools are already required to promote community cohesion, itself a disturbing piece of social engineering. I still subscribe to the unfashionable view that schools should exist primarily to educate, but I realise that others see school as performing other roles. For some there is nothing unusual about the compulsory sequestering of a portion of our population for long periods of time; it is necessary to keep them off the streets and keep them safe. All well and good, but should we also be using that time to attempt to shape them to be the model citizens we feel they ought to be: complete with citizenship classes and an enforced multiculturalism.

Interestingly, the problem may very well be of the state’s own making, and the solution greater liberalisation. (I have yet to find a problem that cannot be solved by grater liberalisation!). Giving parents the choice as to where to send their children to school has been found to have a positive impact on racial integration: “choice programs … are increasing the integration of whites and nonwhites” notes one study.

If the CRE and Ministers are genuinely committed to greater social cohesion and racial integration in schools, they would better achieve their goals by freeing parents to send their children to school where they see fit. This would be more effective than bribing and cajoling – the usual tools of government – and would remove any opportunity for gaming the system. Real school choice, however – which requires allowing parents to move their children at will in the same way that they move their bank account – is not on the cards. For the government it would require releasing control and trusting the people; for the CRE it needs a change of mindset from protecting specific groups to freeing everybody.

In the meantime, the CRE will continue to urge Ministers to meddle, and Ministers – as ever – will need little persuasion. It is unlikely to create the socially cohesive Britain they desire, but in the process unintended consequences will manifest themselves. Such is the price of government intervention.

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