Whether we’re looking at ethnicity, class or age, the UK has an integration problem. Our country is unnecessarily divided. We can see it when we visit our schools, we can see it when we walk round our neighbourhoods, we can see it when we look at our friends.
For too long our bar for building a integrated society has been too low. As long as there are no riots or violence we have assumed it’s all ok. As long as everyone speaks some English. As long as we can queue up together. This is not integration, it is tolerance. And it is a tolerance that has accepted the unacceptable. It has accepted one of the most segregated school systems in the rich world. A system so segregated that my three year old daughter will prepare for life in a diverse country by spending seven hours a day, five days a week for 11 years in a building full of people broadly her age, her ethnicity and her parents’ income bracket. It has accepted a care system that corals the elderly together or isolates them at home. And it has accepted a housing policy that locates rich and poor households in separate enclaves.
This division matters. It matters if you care about social mobility for relationships and networks are key to social mobility. However, at present half of our poorest children are educated together in just 20% of our schools. It matters if you care about unemployment. 80% of jobs are never advertised but passed through word of mouth. However half of unemployed Brits spend most of their time with others who are out of work. It matters if you care about social care. Loneliness makes the elderly more likely to suffer mental and physical illness. However, 5 million senior citizens are so disconnected from society that they describe the television as their main companion. And it matters if you care about far-right or faith-based extremism. Having a friend of different faiths makes you less susceptible to extremism. However only 12% of non-Muslims have a Muslim friend.
It is time to admit that our present approach has failed. In fact, it has failed many of the young people my charity has worked with. It failed Ahara – an Asian girl from Birmingham – who at 16 had “never had a white friend”. It failed Dami who never considered university as he did not have a friend who had applied. It failed Louise who crossed roads to avoid groups of black youngsters as she thought they were all in gangs.
And it has also failed our country. For a segregated country is a low trust country. And we have become a low trust country; British citizens under 55 have lower trust of their neighbours than any people in Europe. This should seriously worry us for it is high-trust countries that flourish in the global race. Individuals are happier – meaning lower mental health expenditure, communities are more cohesive and less fearful of crime – meaning lower policing costs – and economies grow faster with a more interconnected labour market.
So what do we do about it? An effective relational approach to integration must have two main thrusts.
Firstly, it must seek to desegregate our public services – with a particular focus on education which is uniquely social. Our schools, apprenticeship programmes and universities must be places where young people from all walks of life gather. This means finding ways to incentivise all schools to reach their entire community. The right to operate as a free school or academy might come with a requirement to reserve a set number of places for those on free school meals. Or an Ofsted rating or provision of charitable status might require schools to show they are reaching all sections of a community. For universities, the right to charge higher fees might be tied more closely to receiving applications from all sections of society. For apprentices, providers might be required to do much more to ensure that they are seen as an option for all young people not just the least academic.
Secondly, it must seek to support and encourage the social entrepreneurs who will build the new 21st Century institutions. Lottery funding should be set aside to support the initial start-up of creative and scalable ways of connecting people. Institutions like The Big Lunch –which now brings together many tens of thousands each year – were born in exactly this way. Support must also be prioritised for young fast-growing institutions including the National Citizen Service. Through it, charities like my own have connected thousands of people across income, ethnicity and generational lines. It is through the National Citizen Service that Ahara made a white friend, Dami decided to apply to university and Louise overcame her fear
For too long a truly relational approach to integration policy has been left in the shade, eclipsed by discussions of immigration, race relations and security. It is time to put relationships at the heart of the approach and bring UK citizens together again.
Jon Yates is Strategy and Development Director at The Challenge Network.