Social segregation in secondary schools: how does England compare with other countries?

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

June 1, 2008


Social segregation in schools - the uneven distribution across schools of children from different socio-economic backgrounds - has been much discussed in England in recent years. There has been debate about whether the 1988 Education Reform Act led to greater polarisation in the social composition of schools. Similar concerns have been expressed about the changes proposed in the 2005 White Paper on education, with its emphasis on greater parental choice and greater independence for schools. Social segregation is of interest for several reasons. If children's performance at school depends on their peers, higher levels of social segregation lead to greater inequality in academic achievement and thence greater inequality in later-life outcomes. And excessive segregation may threaten present-day social cohesion. In some circumstances, greater social segregation may even reduce average achievement levels.

The extent of segregation in England's secondary schools may be assessed in two ways. Segregation today may be compared with segregation in earlier years. Alternatively, it may be compared with levels elsewhere: does England have a little or a lot of social segregation when compared with other industrialised countries? We take this second route.

We compare the situation in England with that in 27 rich industrialised countries using data from the 2000 and 2003 rounds of the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), an international survey sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We also compare England with Scotland and Northern Ireland, the two other countries in the UK that are natural comparators since (unlike Wales) they have educational systems that differ from England's. This analysis points to some intriguing differences that would have been hidden by analysis at the UK level. Key findings include:

(1) In terms of social segregation in secondary schools, England stands in the middle ranks of 27 rich industrialized countries. England ranks below high-segregation countries such as Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Hungary, but above Scotland and the Nordic countries, and at about the same level as the USA.

(2) England's segregation is not driven by the existence of private schools. About 80 percent of the segregation is accounted for by the uneven spread of children from different social backgrounds within the state sector.

(3) Parental choice in England is high by international standards: 52 percent of children in state schools in England say that they attend their school because it is 'known to be a better school than others in the area'. This is higher than in any other country in the study, and twice the all-country average (25 percent). But differences in parental choice across countries are not strongly associated with differences in levels of social segregation.

(4) The high-segregation countries tend to be the ones where academic selection is more prevalent. 28 percent of pupils in English secondary schools are in schools that use academic ability or feeder school recommendations as a criterion for admitting pupils, a level that is only half the average for all countries in the study (56 percent).

(5) Several of the high-segregation countries have separate academic and vocational secondary school tracks, a specific sort of academic selection of pupils. In Austria, Germany and Hungary, over half of the total social segregation is accounted for by unevenness in the distribution of social background between the different school tracks, rather than unevenness within each of the school tracks.

Published in

Oxford Review of Education

Volume and page numbers

Volume: 34(1): 21-37 , p.31 -37






not held in Res Lib - bibliographic reference only

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