Photo: Chain from Drewbonic Flickr photo stream

The best social science book I have read this year is Toxic Schools, Bowen Paulle’s account of urban high-school-life in New York and Amsterdam. Paulle demonstrates how divisive educational systems that segregate poor, black and other ethnic minority students into the least popular schools have toxic effects on health. Similar processes occur in the UK. The reliance on proximity for allocating secondary-school places has led to the most affluent families moving next to the highest-achieving, most popular schools. The concept of school ‘choice’, which has been central to the marketisation of education, is largely an illusion for the poorest families who are effectively excluded from many schools. Health and education policy-makers must now consider ways to address these inequalities, which raises the question of whether lottery systems are needed to allocate places more fairly in an effort to detox our education system.

The result of six years as a teacher-ethnographer in the Bronx and Southeast Amsterdam, Toxic Schools provides a vivid account of how “dumping ground” schools violently reproduce and deepen health inequalities. At times, it feels like the prequel to Philippe Bourgois’ In Search of Respecta classic ethnographic study of poor, black men and street culture in East Harlem. This new study shows how stress, anxiety, and self-preservation are learnt in high school, reinforcing wider structural inequalities at an early age.

Paulle’s cross-national perspective exposes how the extent of a country’s welfare state or public spending on education does little or nothing to limit the corrosive cycle of harm entailed in warehousing students from poor families together within deeply divided school systems. His ethnographic methods also allowed him to look beyond the most spectacular violent events and feel and reveal the chronic stress experienced in these institutions:

“I do not use ‘toxic’ as some kind of abstraction or metaphor… [High school students] going through their daily grinds were exposed to interactions so stressful that – from a mental and physical health perspective – they have to be considered as hazardous” (p.199)

These descriptions of high-school life echo what young people have told me about life in “rough”, “tough”, unpopular schools in London, which can have a very strong gravitational pull towards alienation and street violence.  Within these schools health harms don’t only occur through stress and violence but also drug use as young people seek ‘safe’ sources of identity and bonding to ‘fit in’ survive. This also often exacerbates already difficult and conflicting relationships with teachers, further limiting opportunities and entrenching disengagement.

Paulle supports the verdict  in The Spirit Level that everyone’s worse off in very unequal countries. Hidden behind Wilkinson and Pickett’s trademark scattergraphs, it’s these toxic urban high-schools that are the “petri dishes for destructive and far-reaching emotional contagion” (Toxic Schools,  p.202 ). In other words, the toxicity of educational “dumping grounds” spills out beyond the school gates across the whole of society. So what would a detox look like?

Although warnings that schools are damaging health are by no means new, little progress has been made in addressing the divisive processes through which health inequalities are powerfully reproduced and deepened by toxic school environments. The danger is that we theorise these school contexts with increasing sophistication but don’t identify and advocate for practical solutions. Whilst there is a clear need for addressing structural problems such as poverty, more immediate education reforms are also vital if we are to detoxify urban schools in the UK.

For example, the continuing reliance on geographical proximity for allocating places is what leads to what Paulle terms “dumping grounds” and “school-related stigma”. Poor families do not choose less academic schools. The economics of school ‘choice’ simply means that they’re excluded from more popular schools by middle-class parents armed with larger mortgages and, if necessary, a trundle wheel. A report by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) at the University of Bristol on the economics of school places suggests lotteries may have a role:

“Popular schools cannot take everyone who applies – there has to be some mechanism to ration places. If we want to break the link between the access to high-performing schools and family income, then we need an alternative to proximity as a tie-breaker. A lottery for over-subscribed places is one idea used around the world, but only infrequently in England”

Lotteries to allocate school places in Britain have been in the news again recently. Brighton’s education authority is the best known example of such a lottery to try and “break the middle-class hold on school places”. The Brighton experiment is now on hold after the coalition Government banned city-wide admission lotteries but the random allocation of places is now being used more widely to promote fairer access: a recent LSE report found that 42 schools used random allocation as the main ranking criterion in England in 2012.

However, these ad hoc, incremental changes in a few areas are mainly an unintended consequence of the proliferation of academies and ‘free schools’ in England rather than a co-ordinated government attempt to promote more inclusive catchments, which is urgently required. Random allocation by lottery isn’t popular with those who benefit from the current system (cue Daily Mail “fury”) and because journey times increase it’s not ideal – but neither is the current system. Lotteries would be fairer and could break the cycle of toxic schooling.