Educational biomes?

By Gavin, 10th April 2011

I’ve got some thoughts about a different way to create a distributed education. One I think could break through silo’s in our Psychogeography and Biogeography. Please bear with me and, of course, if someone has already done this, please let me know!

Background [or skip the background]

A familiar problem but always a new one to first-time parents: how to choose a school.

In the UK, there are useful Ofsted reports, as well as excellent emerging services like School-o-scope.

But these don’t seek to address some of the macro-issues that exist and, being a data-geek, it got me thinking.

The catalyst was hearing that there is a “really good school” down the road, that happens to be a Catholic school.

Firstly, let me state clearly that I have no issues with other’s belief systems. I am non-religious, but I do strongly believe in secular systems to promote equality (including equality of beliefs).

So, some data (please send me better data if you have it);

  • Catholic schools provide 10% of school places
  • Catholic schools receive 90% state funding as opposed to 100% for pure-state schools
  • Catholic schools maintain 30% intake of non-Catholic denomination
  • Catholic primary schools: 74% were rated good or outstanding, higher than the average of 66% across the UK

From this point on, I’m going to stop referring to “Catholic” as the points I wish to explore are not even specific to faith as an issue.

We have an interesting perspective here: state funding of a belief system producing better results. State-funding of 90% of the school with only 30% of the intake who are “non-demonination”.

This got me thinking;

  • Do I think faith-based schools are acceptable: yes
  • Do I think the state should help fund them: I have no general issue here, other than balance
  • Do I think private faith-based schools have the right to discriminate against kids who don’t “believe”: it’s up to them
  • Do I think state-funded, faith-based schools have the right to discriminate against kids who don’t “believe”: definitely not. This is prejudice at the entry-level to society. It does not create a path to equality.

I then went down a line of  “how do you break an embedded system” which is fairly immutable, and being annoyed that my child wouldn’t have fair and equal access to a “state-funded best school”, because of a belief system he is not old enough to comprehend.

How could we cultivate more diversity? What would be the implication of disallowing state-funded schools to be predjudiced against children based on a notion of faith that the kids don’t even comprehend?

But it occurred to me that there was a much bigger question.

Having grown up in place where there was one school (and buses to take us all there), this wasn’t a parameter I’d had to consider. Now, living in London where there are hundreds of schools, a high population density, and huge cultural diversity, I had some immediate observations:

  1. 1. There is fierce competition. Parents naturally want to get their kids into “the best” school. The parents have the Ofsted reports and anecdotal evidence to go on. They produce a preference list. Then cross their fingers.
  2. 2. Schools have a selection process that is defined by each individual school’s Admissions Authority, and then broadly the distance (“catchment area”) you are from their school. I’m sure the school’s AA’s go to great pains to ensure fair distributions, but I have not found a data source that aggregates and makes all the rules public (ie. data mineable).
  3. 3. In a school near me, [allegedly] over 70% of the kids speak English as a second language. This obviously reflects a local population-density along specific cultural lines.
  4. 4. In “one of the best” schools near me, less than 30% of the kids are allowed in unless they follow a particular belief system. Such imbalanced “nodes” can act as magnets that affect the local population.

So, how could you address the ghettos of cities (middle-class, low-income, monoculture pockets, etc — my definition of ghetto is a physically local group who live there because of social, economic, or legal pressure – this applies to Chelsea as much as Silvertown). What would you do instead?

We have geo-coded data emerging that maps that detail ethnicity, religion and related metrics. We know the data on all the schools. We could get the rules of every school and simply game the system to individual advantage. But, wouldn’t there be a better way?

A 20 mile cycle around East London on Saturday helped me get a feel for the psychogeography, and a possible solution.

Using data to evenly distribute diversity

My proposal is this;

“We wish to create an outcome of less prejudice, more integration and better learning. This should start at school.”

We can posit the following;

  1. 1. We have a legacy notion of distance. In this case, the physical distance surrounding a school.
  2. 2. In cities, we have vast cultural diversity in dense areas. Often this is ghettoised. It is mapped.

What if;

  1. 1. We redefined distance as the temporal distance (TD) surrounding a school. In other words, how long it takes to get there, not how far.
  2. 2. We insist all state schools (including belief-based schools) create a completely equal entry system rather than devolved selection criteria (the AA’s can add flavour, but not affect the macro-distribution). This uniform distribution would be based on the ethic, cultural, belief, gender and related distribution profile of kids within the TD of the school. We have this data [if someone has a London map, please let me know, but here’s a great image of Chicago – see illustration below].

Imagine chartering a bus and traversing a TD of cultural diversity, which takes the diversity of the city to the heart of their education platform: the schools.

So, now go and mash up travel data, schools data and the census data, and create shards of cultural diversity that can get to school. I think this could break through substantial silo’s in our Psychogeography and Biogeography.

Starting points

Tom Carden has done the TD for the Tube Map. Note that the scale is minutes, not distance.

Bill Rankin (and many others I’m sure) have done geo-coded maps of diveristy. For example: