The Government's drive to expand parental choice, as outlined in the Education and Inspections Bill, is likely to result in more families opting for schools populated by children of the same ethnic group, says the Economic and Social Research Council.
Professor Irene Bruegel and Susie Weller, of London South Bank university, surveyed 570 children at 12 primary schools and tracked the progress of 70 as they moved to secondary school. They found that almost half the primary children, particularly those living in diverse inner city communities, easily made friends from other religions and cultures.
But when they moved to secondary level, many parents chose schools split along racial lines, fuelling concerns that shifts in government policy, including the expansion of faith schools, will promote greater social segregation.
The conclusions follow comments by Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities, who called for a "new and honest" debate on diversity, but said that the remit of the newly formed Commission on Integration and Cohesion should not include faith schools.
"Parental choice systems of school allocation can be seen to fuel racism," the study said. "In the transition from primary to secondary school the friendships most likely to be ruptured by the move were those that cross ethnic boundaries." Researchers found that the majority of pupils surveyed in the 12 primaries, which included schools in inner and outer London, a new town in the South East and an estate in Birmingham, had difficulty identifying the ethnicity or faith of their friends.
Researchers found that 40 per cent of friendships between primary pupils crossed ethnic lines, although it was as high as 71 per cent among Afro-Caribbean pupils.
In primary classes where at least a third of the children were from minority backgrounds, there was greater evidence of mixed ethnic friendships carrying over to secondary school friendships. However, where 80 per cent of the children were white, they were significantly less likely to make friends at secondary school across racial divides.
Interviews with parents and pupils revealed that, when they have the choice of more than one secondary, many choose schools populated by their own race. One mother, who rejected a school with lots of Indian pupils, told researchers: "I'm not being racist really, but they are all Asians there and she doesn't know any of them."
Professor Bruegel, who has submitted her findings to the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, said: "There was some evidence that parents learned to respect people from other backgrounds as a result of their children's experiences in mixed schools."