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Equal opportunities for migrant youth in educational systems with high levels of social and ethnic segregation: assessing the impact of school team resources

Final Report Summary - EQUOP (Equal opportunities for migrant youth in educational systems with high levels of social and ethnic segregation: assessing the impact of school team resources)

Although a gap in educational performance of migrant children compared to children without a migration background is to be observed in most industrialized countries, it is particularly big in countries as Belgium, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, as has been attested by the PISA-data. Social and ethnic segregation, which is particularly high in these educational systems, seems to be one of the important explanatory factors. The EQUOP project wanted to disentangle what are the crucial factors by which this high level of segregation impacts on unequal opportunities for immigrant children. Going beyond the classic composition effect model (looking at peer group effects, i.e. positive or negative influences of pupils on each other), this project wants to also examine the potential impact of differentiated teacher profiles on group performance. The project wishes to test the hypothesis that the link between school composition and educational performance is a (partly) spurious effect, caused by mediating effect of teacher characteristics. We hypothesize that better skilled and more positively oriented teachers are overrepresented in schools with an 'easier' school population, while so-called 'difficult' schools (populated by working-class immigrant children) have difficulty in attracting and - especially - keeping competent and motivated staff. In order to examine this hypothesis a mixed methods approach were used, combining quantitative statistical analysis (on new and existing data, for instance multi-level analysis of the PISA-data set and other eligible datasets), qualitative case studies and focus groups. Secondary analysis of existing data-sets (PISA, TIMMS, PIRLS) was undertaken and new data was collected (taking the Flemish and Francophone educational systems in Belgium as case-studies).

Many studies have highlighted that levels of educational attainment tend to be lower among immigrant children in Europe. However, the data also suggest that this poor performance does not only stem from the usual socio-economic factors associated with low attainment, but is also the result of school segregation, having an impact over and beyond individual characteristics. In the EQUOP project the main challenge was to not only document to what extent segregation is one of the main detrimental factors, but also investigate under what circumstances it can be attenuated. We find that some schools have a majority of pupils from immigrant backgrounds, while others will be almost entirely composed of non-immigrant children. But when we compare schools that have a similar pupil composition, still we find important discrepancies. Children in some do much better than children in others. We then investigated whether the characteristics of teachers and cohesion among staff can account for this difference.

The EQUOP project looked at existing datasets of school composition and examination results, in combination with new longitudinal data which track students performances and their link with teacher attitudes and characteristics over time. The school composition effect is well documented: a concentration of pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds often causes them to collectively underperform. Even if it is important to keep on documenting this in the most accurate ways, the novelty of the EQUOP project lies elsewhere. In the EQUOP project we examine whether, in highly segregated Belgian schools, the effect is reinforced or attenuated by the attitudes, policies and characteristics of individual schools and teachers themselves.

With the help of ERC backing, the five-year project bridges gaps in literature by approaching the problem from a socio-economic perspective which looks at the education system as a quasi-competitive market. One of the important empirical results is that segregation should also be considered at classroom level, not just across schools. Future national and international studies must consider internal school policies that might enforce further segregation within the schools themselves. Another important conclusion is linked to the differential team characteristics in schools according to their position in the segregated system. Overall, currently schools with the most challenges do not tend to have the most stable and more experienced teacher teams. One of the systemic effects at play is the way in which novice teachers in Francophone Belgian state schools are assigned their first position. They are typically placed in a school in need, invariably one with a large proportion of pupils from immigrant and socio-economically marginalised backgrounds. These schools end up with a high proportion of less experienced teaching staff; and staff cohesion is low because new teachers tend to move soon after their initial posting. Even if this does not explain everything, this practice does clearly contribute to educational inequality in Belgium.

Throughout the project, the EQUOP team has been in close contact with policy-makers in Belgium. Belgian governments wish to reduce the impact of segregation on educational opportunities and insights from the EQUOP project are informing debates on necessary reforms. The focus groups at the end of the project showed that sensitivity is important. As overall policy recommendation the EQUOP team therefore stresses the importance to keep in mind the ultimate goals of educational policy: “All stakeholders, pupils, teachers, parents, policy-makers and politicians need to first endorse a common objective (‘a good school for each child’) and then work to overcome the obstacles together. It is critical there is no finger of blame as this will just delay educational reform. Equal opportunities are key for society. We are wasting the talent of pupils who miss out on a good education. By not mobilising and using this talent, we are harming the viability of our society and our economic system.”