A very British school

Where one school leads, will the country follow?
April 24, 2013
Waterhead Academy: "Britain needs the process of integration taking place at the school to succeed"

You have almost certainly never heard of the Waterhead Academy school, and the people who run it want to keep it that way for at least a couple of years. For there is something happening there that, if all goes well, could have quite important implications for parts of the British education system and even British society itself.

And, for now, all going well means staying out of the headlines. The almost 1,400-pupil Waterhead is the result of a merger between two ethnic monoculture secondary schools—Counthill almost entirely white, and Breeze Hill almost entirely Pakistani—in Oldham, one of the most ethnically segregated towns in Britain.

It was only in November that the two schools merged into the handsome new, brown brick building that is Waterhead and it is so far, so good. When I visited the school recently it seemed like a normal, well-ordered school full of boisterous children, and its clever design makes it feel less oppressively large than it actually is.

The school principal is Nigel McQuoid, a pleasingly straightforward Northern Irishman who knows a thing or two about polarised places: his uncle was murdered by the IRA. He is, of course, glad to have proved the pessimists wrong so far—it has not “kicked off” in the phrase everyone likes to use—but he is braced for trouble. The school could be just one big racially motivated playground brawl from disaster.

His experience of Northern Ireland—where a unique sectarian divide persists—lies behind his acknowledgement that this is unlikely to be a fairy story. “Oldham is a very territorial place and that is not going to change rapidly,” he says in his office looking out on to spanking new playing fields. The classes, and all school activities, are mixed but during the lunch break I saw the pupils in their smart blue school uniform socialising overwhelmingly with others from their own ethnic background.

“It’s true that at dinner time they still sit in their old friendship groups but you are seeing a bit more fluidity among the younger kids in year seven,” says McQuoid. Talking to older pupils, some say that they now have classroom mates across the ethnic divide but the idea of having contact outside school or going to each other’s houses is still regarded as outlandish.

This is not the first time such a merger has been attempted in an ethnically divided part of the north of England, and the previous attempts are not regarded as successful.

It is one of the reasons that Alun Francis, chief executive of the local further education college Oldham College, which is the Waterhead Academy sponsor, has planned the merger so meticulously and slowly.

The merger has been discussed since 2006 and there have been quite a few bumps along the way, including losing the original sponsor (the Church of England) and the original principal.

The two founder schools both had pretty poor results in the years prior to becoming an academy in September 2010. Breeze Hill, the mainly Pakistani school, had around 20 per cent of pupils getting decent GCSEs and Counthill was only marginally better, in the low 30s.

For the first two years of Waterhead’s existence it remained rooted in the two original schools, two miles apart. Right from the start there were mixed sport teams—with selection based only on merit—and one session of mixed lessons on a Tuesday afternoon. In September 2011 Waterhead moved to mixed lessons on two days a week, which was a logistical headache, but helped the acclimatisation process.

Then, with some trepidation and with many nay-sayers predicting the worst, including many people in the school’s mainly white neighbourhood, the new enterprise started its merged life on the impressive £25m site last November.

Oldham needs this trial to succeed. It is one of the three northern “mill towns” that suffered riots in 2001, along with Bradford and Burnley. They have become symbols of industrial decline combined with ethnic division, with some of the lowest wages and house prices in the country.

Sitting on the eastern edge of greater Manchester, Oldham has a low employment rate and only 18 per cent of residents have a degree level qualification (it is almost 30 per cent nationally), which contributes to the town having the slowest recovery in its region. The ethnic minority population is about 23 per cent and almost all Muslim, about half from the conservative Kashmiri Pakistani community and most of the rest Bangladeshis. There is a low level of mixing both between the minorities and between the two groups and white Oldham.

It may be that Britain needs this trial to succeed, too. Academics cannot agree about whether it is becoming more integrated or more segregated in the wake of the unprecedented immigrant inflows of the past 15 years, which has turned London, Leicester, Slough and Luton into towns where the white British are in a minority (with Birmingham close behind).

The truth is probably both: the UK has become more integrated among younger people and in the suburbs where the more successful minority groups are now well represented, but it is a different story in the northern towns and those parts of some big cities, including London and Birmingham, where the less successful minorities tend to cluster. About 40 per cent of Britain’s ethnic minority population lives in wards that are only around one third white British.

Integration/segregation is a slippery and complex subject and we tend to have conflicting intuitions about it: understanding, on the one hand, that people will often prefer to live in areas dominated by people like themselves, on the other hand we feel that a good society is one in which people feel at ease with their fellow citizens (of all kinds), which usually requires some consistent contact and communication.

One thing that the academics do agree upon is that schools tend to be more segregated than the neighbourhoods they are drawn from. Many schools in areas of relatively high minority settlement reached a tipping point in the 1980s or 1990s and went from being quite mixed to overwhelmingly minority dominated, as white parents feared their children would lose out if they became a minority in the classroom.

Even in London, which thinks of itself as a successful multiracial city, there is high school segregation. According to the Bristol University researcher Richard Harris, although about 75 per cent of London’s black population lives in majority white areas, less than half of black primary school pupils attend a majority white school. Similarly, although about 60 per cent of the south Asian population lives in majority white areas, only about one third of south Asian primary school pupils are in white majority schools.

Across Britain, primary schools tend to be more monocultural than secondary schools, partly because they have smaller catchment areas, but also because the minority population is larger the lower down the age cohort you go. Researchers at the University of Bristol have found that Bangladeshi, Pakistani and black Africans are in the most segregated schools.

The picture is not entirely bleak. According to Simon Burgess, also of Bristol University, school segregation seems to be lessening for Indians and Caribbeans—and in parts of London, Manchester and Leicester—although it may be getting worse for Pakistanis in the northern towns. Also, school segregation in Britain has a much less negative impact on test scores than it does for blacks in the US. Indeed most of the large minority groups now outperform the white British average in exam results and tend to be more aspirational, certainly more so than poorer whites. Nevertheless, white parents worry that children of recent immigrants or from homes where English is not spoken as a first language will hold back their own child.

Schools teach English to those who do not speak it adequately in a variety of different ways, sometimes in separate classes, sometimes not. But with little fanfare the state invests heavily in bringing non-English speakers up to speed; according to unofficial estimates from the Institute for Fiscal Studies the annual spend is about £250m. (This is usually less of an issue in secondary schools like Waterhead where many of the British-born Pakistani pupils do not speak English at home, but are usually fluent in English by secondary level.)

This investment in English teaching appears to be getting results. Over half of primary pupils in London do not have English as their mother tongue, yet secondary school pupils in London who do not speak English at home now marginally outperform pupils who do. Aspiration is, again, a big factor here, not just extra English lessons.

If schools are emblems of separation in many places like Oldham they are also, surely, a central part of the integration solution. It does not matter that schools in Cumbria and Cornwall are almost entirely white; it does matter in towns and cities with large minority populations that many schools are monocultural—schools should as far as possible reflect the town.

Achieving more mixed schools should not be impossible, especially as it is what most parents say they want. Many minority parents would prefer their children to be in a majority white school—they live in a majority white country after all. And although most white parents dislike their children being in a minority most surveys show they are happy enough if there is a significant ethnic minority presence in a school, knowing that their children are growing up in a multiracial society.

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The Waterhead school play: "educational 'white flight' is not inevitable, but it requires some gumption to stop it"

But desegregating schools is easier said than done, short of “big bang” solutions like the Waterhead Academy—evident from the slow progress made in Northern Ireland, (discussed by David McKittrick in an article for Prospect in June 2011, ”Divided city”). That is partly because, as the American social scientist Thomas Schelling noticed in Chicago in the 1960s, it is a quirk of urban life that it only takes a small preference to live or go to school among people of your own background for that to quickly sort itself into a very divided town.

And the direction of public service reform in recent years towards greater individual choice may be reinforcing outcomes of the type identified by Schelling. Some people fear that the growth of faith schools, mainly thanks to the Church of England being a big sponsor of academies, may be having a similar negative influence on mixing.

Faith schools are popular with parents because they tend to enforce stricter rules and their results are generally better. But many of them, especially Church of England schools, have large numbers of pupils from other religions or no religion—some even have a non-Christian quota of 25 per cent. Indeed, Christian faith schools in some parts of the country, particularly Catholic ones, are often the most ethnically mixed in their area. Muslim faith schools are usually much less mixed, but that is true of ordinary state schools in Muslim areas too, and it is impossible to deny Muslims the right to state-funded faith schools when other religions enjoy it. Introducing formal ethnic quotas into schools to prevent the kind of segregation represented by the old Breeze Hill and Counthill schools in Oldham would be hugely controversial, and possibly against equality laws.

But imagination and flexibility can be used to bend catchment areas to produce more mixing, and this might be more easily achieved if public bodies and local authorities had an explicit obligation to promote mixing, as opposed to the vaguer “social cohesion” as at present. And if the Church of England can apply informal quotas why should mainstream schools not have explicit mixing targets too? Choice is important but avoiding a society scarred by segregation may require limits to be placed on individual choice—especially in pursuit of goals that people claim they want.

Educational “white flight” is not inevitable, but it requires some gumption to stop it. The community cohesion expert Ted Cantle tells the story of the Minerva Primary Academy in the Fishponds area of Bristol, where a major exodus of white children was prevented following the arrival of a significant cohort of Somali children. A meeting was arranged with the worried white parents and it was explained that Somali children with language difficulties would get extra support and that their own children’s progress would not suffer. The result was that most of the white parents decided to stay and the school has become a local success story.

Oldham itself has had one of the worst records of all on school segregation, though Bradford is catching up. The Oldham primary schools are mainly monocultural and of the 14 secondary schools (prior to Waterhead) eight were overwhelmingly white, one (Breeze Hill) almost entirely Pakistani, one almost entirely Bangladeshi, and four somewhat more mixed. Both the sixth form college and the further education college, are mixed.

If the Waterhead trial remains on course, this picture could start to change quite swiftly. Better than a law or a new quota system is a role model—a successful example to emulate. And if Oldham can do it, anywhere in the UK can—that is why Waterhead matters.

So what will success look like at Waterhead? It requires two things. First, holding the balance of the intake at roughly half and half for the long term (it is actually now about 45 per cent Pakistani and 55 per cent white). Second, it requires the exam performance for both groups to improve so that the merged whole can be seen as an improvement on the sum of the parts.

And what are the chances of achieving success? There has been some ambivalence about Waterhead in both communities but the reservations have been greater on the white side. Pakistani parents worried about their kids having further to travel but the more aspirational among them have always been keen on Waterhead. On the white side there was a more general concern about being pulled back by the Pakistani kids, partly based on looking at the pretty abysmal record of Breeze Hill.

That fear is proving unjustified. Just before the full merger Breeze Hill saw a spurt of improvement in its results, so it may now be Pakistani pupils who will pull up white and not vice versa. They also appear to be contributing to rather better behaviour than at white Counthill. One teacher commented that “the Asian kids seem to be a calming influence.” And the Ofsted report that gave the school a disappointing three—meaning it requires improvement—did comment favourably on the low level of swearing. (Waterhead has 35 per cent of children on free school meals, the usual measure of pupil poverty.)

The message seems to be getting through to white parents. One prefect I spoke to said he knew a white family who decided not to send their daughter to the school who are now regretting it.

“This school is a place where people can have contact across different identities and traditions in a secure environment. You can argue and then go and play badminton together. But this is still very early days,” says McQuoid who is himself a devout Christian—something reassuring to the many pious Muslim Pakistani parents—as he calmly contemplates the pitfalls ahead.

What could trip him up? Religious sensitivity issues? What if a Pakistani girl wants to wear a full face cover veil? What if a white boy declares himself to be gay and receives death threats from a group of Pakistanis?

The teaching staff of 160-plus are overwhelmingly white but there are about 20 teachers from various minority backgrounds, mainly Pakistani, who could be crucial in helping to defuse tensions.

Talking to a group of senior pupils it seems hard to imagine that there could be trouble brewing. Head boy Jamie Pollinger, sitting beside the head girl Neelam Khan, says that “people are now proud to say that they go to Waterhead and that’s a breakthrough because it wasn’t like that at the start.”

I asked the pupils to describe the typical stereotypes that the two groups hold of each other. One Pakistani boy mumbled “porkie” and a white boy talked about the Pakistani gang mentality, which can be intimidating to girls, but they were too shy to reveal more.

Even if the pupils do continue to socialise overwhelmingly within their own ethnic group and avoid visiting each others’ houses, they are at least discovering through close proximity that the kids from the other group represent as wide a variety of humanity as their own. And that, ultimately, is the (non-academic) point of Waterhead.

On the basis, admittedly, of just one short visit it seems that the foundations for a successful merger are being laid at Waterhead. If I am right then you will not hear about the school again for another two or three years, when it might be hailed as a symbol of a gradually desegregating British education system.