'Balanced' communities, where rich and poor live side-by-side, are key to better schooling for the latter, say thinkers on the Left. Jeremy Sutcliffe reports.
THE LINK between school choice and housing has long been obvious to middle-class families, who often move home to be in the catchment area of a good school. Indeed homes near popular schools now command a premium of up to 15 per cent.
The flip-side of this is a flight from poor, especially urban areas: 1,700 people desert English cities each week, citing deprivation and poor schools as prime reasons. "Open-school" admissions policies have exacerbated the problem as parents increasingly chauffeur their children to the best schools (making rush-hour congestion even worse).
But choice is meaningless for poor families who have to walk to school and cannot afford to move. Their options are limited, and will include a disproportionate number of "sink" schools.
This, it is said, represents "market failure": giving parents more choice may have improved standards in most schools, but those at the bottom of the pile are dropping further and further behind. In fact, the Office for Standards in Education says the gap between the best and worst 10 per cent of secondaries in GCSE performance grew from 30.4 points in 1992 to 32 points in 1996.
Now two leading left-wing think-tanks are looking at how education and housing policies can be shaped to raise standards for the poor. The results form a blueprint for social renewal, and could yet turn out to be New Labour's big idea for the next election.
Far from abandoning choice, according to the policy wonks at the Institute for Public Policy Research and Demos, the answer is to extend it to the socially excluded. This is where housing becomes crucial. The key is to provide enough afford-able housing in every area and encourage planners and builders to develop "mixed" housing schemes, which will provide balanced communities with schools at their centre.
Such communities would be a prime example of the "joined-up" thinking the Prime Minister is so passionate about.
Writing in The TES back in 1998, Mr Blair said the problems of poverty could only be solved by concerted action on housing, health, education, social services and transport.
He said regeneration must not just be about investing in bricks and mortar, but about "creating vibrant, safe communities in which schools are cherished, teachers respected and young people feel they have a future".
His comments co-incided with the publication of a report by the Government's social exclusion unit, which painted a depressing picture of communities racked by poor school standards, crime, truancy, drugs, homelessness and unemployment.
Since then, the first tranche of a promised pound;800 million has begun to trickle into urban renewal projects, underpinning education-led schemes such as Sure Start (which supports the families of pre-school children), action zones, homework clubs and other out-of-school activities.
But the IPPR and DEMOS want the Government to go a step further.
Last month, they held a joint seminar to discuss the impact of recent housing trends on education and the effects of education reforms on the housing market and communities.
This was by no means a meeting of jermiahs, greeting Labour's continuance of Tory education policies with cries of doom. There was little enthusiasm for parents to be given less choice, for the abandonment of league tables or against the planned increase in the number of specialist schools.
Central to the discussion is the belief that the needs of the community are considered alongside those of the individual.
This does not simply mean having, say, balanced school intakes, but encouraging key professionals - teachers, doctors and police officers - to live and play a part in the communities where they work.
"There's quite a lot of evidence to show that communities work best when there is a broad mix," says Sue Regan, the IPPR's housing specialist. "Providing help for teachers to buy or rent a home contributes to that mix. It can also help them afford to live in areas where housing costs are high and save them having to commute long distances."
A report to be published in the spring, based on a joint study by Demos and Comedia, an independent consultancy focusing on urban policy issues, is expected to support calls for a big expansion in the country's "social housing" stock. This move is likely to be welcomed by housing associations and builders.
The report will also back the idea that teachers and other public-sector professionals - who are seen as the glue which helps to hold successful communities together - should be given priority on waiting lists for social housing.
Such ambitions are easier to achieve through housing experiments like Cambourne, being built from scratch on a greenfield site outside Cambridge (see case study).
The real challenge is to bring about renewal in the poorest urban communities. According to Ken Warpole of Comedia, who has been studying housing and education provision in five English cities, the Government may be about to take up the challenge.
"Whatever one hears from various government departments, ministers seem to be focusing on the nexus of social renewal.
"Amitai Etzioni (the "communitarian" US academic, who has heavily influenced Blair) has talked about putting schools at the moral heart of the community. There are clear signs that the Prime Minister wants to do just that."
FACT FILE. HOMES AND SCHOOLS
Achievement gap: In 1992, the gap between the top and bottom 10 per cent of secondary schools at GCSE was 30.4 points; by 1996 the gap had grown to 32 points
Flight from cities: Around 1,700 people move home from town to country every week
Home ownership: 69 per cent of the population own their own homes, but ownership is concentrated in certain sections of the population: only 35 per cent of African-Caribbeans, for example, are home-owners
House prices: Buying a house near a popular school can cost 10 per cent more - an additional pound;9,000 on the price of an average house
The school run: One in five cars in the rush hour is taking a child to or from school. Between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s the average journey to school increased from from 1.1 to 1.3 miles (primary pupils) and 2.3 to 3.1 miles (secondary)
Mobility: One in seven
English councils has schools where more than a third of pupils change every year. The proportion of council tenants who change schools has doubled since the 1970s