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School segregation and its effects on the student. A subject for reflection in Debates on Education

Debates on Education, the area of reflection for education professionals and representatives of civil society, organised by the UOC and Fundació Jaume Bofill, has commenced its seventh edition. Vincent Dupriez, social psychologist and professor at the Catholic University of Louvain, was the first guest on the 2009-2010 edition with the conference ?School segregation: social and political challenges?, given on 27 October in the MACBA.

“This forum for discussion and debate on key subjects to which the education sector should respond has, in previous editions, included experts and professionals of recognised standing, such as Robert Castel who talked about the crisis of social cohesion, David Hopkins who dealt with leadership in innovative educational organisations and Julio Carabaña, on immigration and schools”, to mention the last three, recalled director of Studies of Psychology and Education Sciences for UOC, Josep Maria Mominó, during the opening of the event.

Dupriez, member of an interdisciplinary research group on socialisation, education and learning, “opens a new season of this initiative, dealing with the controversial and complex subject of school segregation”, added Anna Jolonch, from Fundació Jaume Bofill, who introduced the doctor in Educational Sciences, highlighting his work as researcher and professor in countries such as Colombia, Chile and Peru, and his publications in prestigious international journals within the world of education or “books such as From school to the labour market or The efficiency of teaching: promises and areas of shadow.” Jolonch highlighted that “in his work, Dupriez has focussed on the analysis of educational policies –looking at the real effects on the student- or the analysis of educational organisations. But, whatever the subject, he has always paid particular attention to the notions of equality and fairness”.

Vincent Dupriez, who pointed out that his work is that of a team and of a multidisciplinary team, stated that in order to gain more insight into a controversial subject such as school segregation and its influence on learning and the student’s school career, “the first thing to do is to define what we understand by segregation and its relation with the term inequality. Segregation is the different distribution of individuals in reference to a specific characteristic -ethnic, social…- with negative effects for certain categories of individuals. In Europe, and focussing on the subject of schools, there are three types of segregation: school, academic -referring to the academic level of the students- and ethnic -the main type in the US-”.

According to this expert, on our continent, “the worry about school segregation has only recently appeared. Until World War II, there was a clear segregation in our school systems. During that period, the majority of educational systems were based on a logic of different and clearly separated categories. Primary education was for children from the popular class and, in parallel, there were high-level educational centres for the upper or upper-middle class, which prepared students for University. After World War II, the question: is this legitimate in a democratic country? was asked. If, as occurs in the majority of our countries, school is considered to be the institution par excellence that must prepare students for public life in a pluralist society, it must therefore be a place where each child learns to co-habit with others, where he/she discovers cultural aspects that are different from those of his/her family”. During the 50s and 60s the importance of a single school, that gave each student the same options for studying and at the same time with a social and political proposal contrary to the previous dual model, was evaluated. Thus, in some countries, this new model includes children up to 10 years old (Germany), 12 (Belgium) or 16 (as in the majority). The path has been very different in the United States, where, as Dupriez points out, “racial segregation has been the object of prosecution and social conflict” practically forever.

Another difference between each side of the Atlantic is, in the opinion of this expert, research on the subject. In the United States, there is scientific literature about the subject but in Europe, “few authors are concerned about the effects of school segregation. From my point of view it probably has effects in terms of inequality of learning and inequality of opportunities. Public opinion and politicians believe that the greatest problem we have is not segregation but its effects, which we have just mentioned. If we consider the problem to be segregation, we will confront it in a different way as to if we consider the real problem to be inequality of opportunities and of learning”. But beyond the effects of segregation, Dupriez insists that “segregation is in itself a problem in a plural and democratic society. Students must be given the option of crossing paths with others with cultural and economic means different to their own”. What's more, other variables need to be studied, to see how the structure of the school affects the well-being of the student or his/her studying ambitions.

Research on segregation

Different trends and methodologies exist for studying these subjects. There are researchers that focus their work “on international studies, on databases… thanks to which we can establish a segregation index between academic centres, crossing data such as the average efficiency or the intensity of the relationship between parents with a degree and the student’s score”. These researchers observe that in countries with a lot of school segregation there is a high level of social inequality. Another trend that has been discovered is that the segregation index and the level of efficiency are related, although this is not so obvious: with more segregation, the efficiency level is slightly lower.

However, another path of research considers that “if we want to obtain measurements, they must be taken from specific research carried out in each country. There are different methods. One of them consists in measuring the level of learning of students at the beginning of the year and taking a second measurement at the end, comparing those that are similar. The results demonstrated that the structure of the school does have an effect. This system is used in countries with a lot of segregation such as Britain, Holland or Belgium".

Influences on learning

Professor Dupriez explained that "two tracks of influence of the structure of a school on the student can be differentiated. On one hand, the direct influence of other students -known as the peer effect-. In other words, if the majority of my classmates have low family support or are not interested in studying... they will influence my enthusiasm for learning. But another important part of the influence of the school structure is indirect. When teachers have students in the classroom with behavioural problems, low performance problems, etc instead of working for 45 minutes, they end up working for 35 minutes. They have to stop the class several times or finish before, for example. What is taught in this classroom is not exactly the same because the teacher has to adapt to the public he/she has before them. Also the school and the teacher, consciously or unconsciously, adapt to the students. It is clear that students in a school with a high academic and economic level have more opportunities to learn and this ends up having an impact on the final level of learning".

For this Belgian expert, analysing why there is more or less segregation is also interesting: "on one hand, there is a relationship between residential segregation and school segregation. Therefore, it will influence the way of regulating the distribution of students. On the other hand, it is important to highlight that the educational systems that handle early differentiation by itineraries, by definition, produce academic segregation. This occurs in central European countries. A third point to take into consideration is the distribution of the students: where families can choose the school (free choice) there are accentuated segregation mechanisms. Those who are similar, try to stick together". However, Dupriez insists in highlighting that, this third point becomes more acute above all "in the context of pedagogic autonomy of schools. The family can choose. Schools that have autonomy in evaluation, selection or preparation of the curriculum, battle to differentiate themselves from the rest in order to be chosen. And they end up creating reciprocal adaptation processes between the schools and their public". The law of the market comes into play in the educational system.

Fight against school segregation

During his speech Dupriez assures that fighting against the negative effects of segregation, "is a complex process because it would have to intervene in areas that are not educational" and he suggested different measures such as "first, working on the regulation of enrolment in public and private schools. Also, regulating the curriculum and common external evaluation of learnings, in order to remind all teachers that there is a national education project. There are common goals and objectives for the system" although he admitted that these types of policies are delicate matters for the family, teachers and public opinion. A third form of fighting "would be to promote resources to guarantee the quality of opportunities and the quality of education in schools with a disadvantaged population, which would lead to a direct effect on the possible effect of inequality of segregation".

The autonomy of schools and teachers, one of the points analysed, raised the interest of several of those attending who, at the end of professor Dupriez's presentation, took advantage of the round of questions to discuss this point. The expert wanted to explain and stated that "the subject of autonomy is complex. In fact, it is almost a political question. Over the last few years, a questioning of the role of the state in education has been observed, as in other sectors such as the postal service or health. There is talk of a centralised organisation, of its lack of efficiency... and new models appear".

Dupriez presented two of them, with different results: "For example, in Britain, the government does not have to be the main educator in the country and it should evolve towards a role of evaluator (define objectives, distribute money, evaluate results). In this system, the schools require certain freedom and the state says: "I give them more autonomy but I'm going to control results". Caution is required when selecting a model. In Britain, it has become a problem: teachers are under a lot of pressure when the student doesn't achieve the standard and the government exercises absolute control on what the student handles. This situation generates such a great problem for the teachers that I don't believe there is an improvement in quality. The system in Sweden is interesting. For years, the government has externally measured the educational system. The students are not given grades until the age of 12 or 14, but the system grades the school. This grade serves as information for the teachers and the school, to question themselves, reflect on what they do well and what they don’t do well. There is no penalty or pressure".

What is clear to Dupriez is that "it has not been empirically demonstrated that more autonomy leads to better work. In some cases it enabled better learning among the students but in others, it has resulted in failure. Autonomy is not a guarantee for improving educational systems. For me, giving autonomy to schools at a pedagogic level is not a problem but... I believe in external evaluation".

Dupriez assures that we are facing a real cultural change: schools have to have ambition for all students as their objective, at least for the first stages: "Politicians who have not won legitimacy from parents and teachers... will find it difficult. These measures are successful if the government convinces the teachers that the change makes sense, that it is necessary".

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