Posted on November 29, 2007

Poor Children Should Be Bussed to Better Schools, Says Equality Watchdog

This Is London, November 27, 2007

Bussing poor children to better schools in richer areas could be a way to radically improve ‘social cohesion’, Britain’s equality supremo said yesterday.

Trevor Phillips heaped praise on a U.S. scheme in an economically segregated area which used quotas to create an even spread of disadvantaged and low-achieving pupils across schools.

He said the bussing project in Wake County, North Carolina, had produced ‘exceptional’ results and had even encouraged white families to return to the cities from the suburbs.

Mr Phillips told a conference that it was crucial to think of integration in terms of social class, not merely colour.

Wake County has abandoned its policy of trying to mix pupils by race. Instead, it mixes them by economic background. Forty other education districts across the U.S. have picked up the idea.

Under the scheme, children on free school meals—used as an indicator of poverty—must not take up more than 40 per cent of pupils at any school while poor performers in tests must not number more than 25 per cent.

The scheme has led to hundreds of low-income pupils being bussed to high-performing schools in wealthier areas.

And, according to reports from parents in North Carolina, it has in some cases worked the other way, with well-off pupils brought into poorer inner-city schools.

Bussing to meet racial or economic quotas has long been an incendiary issue in U.S. politics.

Under the latest version of the system, the county is divided into hundreds of groups of families which are classified according to the number of children in each qualifying for free school meals.

Each group is assigned a specific set of schools, allowing officials to distribute pupil wealth across the region.

It means groups of pupils could find themselves being bussed to lessons even if there are alternative schools in walking distance.

Mr Phillips said: “The balancing of numbers is achieved by moving a whole unit of children rather than an individual.”

He added: “In Wake County, something exceptional has happened. Despite overcrowding, and a 45 per cent non-white mix, the county’s schools are performing so well that white families are now returning from the suburbs.”

If applied in Britain it would raise the prospect of parents being denied places at schools of their choice if they are considered the ‘wrong’ class and would trigger a furious debate over ‘social engineering’.

Mr Phillips, who leads the new Equality and Human Rights Commission, has previously warned that ‘white flight’ from racially-mixed areas is behind increasing segregation in schools.

Yesterday, he told the conference, staged by the Runnymede Trust think-tank: “We shouldn’t think about integration by colour or species but by class.

“Addressing class difference is critical to our ambition to challenge the iron law that an infant’s start in life would be conditioned by who his or her parents were. And here we could get really radical.”

A spokesman for Mr Phillips said later: “He wants to look at all the angles on this issue.”

Mr Phillips went on to demand an expansion of multi-faith academy schools which require pupils from all backgrounds across a local area to mix.

Schemes involve closing down schools divided along race or faith lines and putting the pupils in larger schools located more centrally.

The first is being pioneered in Oldham and Mr Phillips said he believed more could be created “through relatively simple adjustments to the planning regime”.

“Though it may cause some doubts to start with I believe that in the long term it will lead to better schools overall—which is what all families want,” he added.