Bringing equal opportunities to immigrant children
28 April 2017

Some school systems in Europe are highly segregated, the Belgian one especially. Poorer standards of education are seen in schools where pupils are predominantly of immigrant background. Researchers are compiling new datasets and information about school composition and teaching cohesion to ensure segregation does not have to mean a difference in education standards.

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Many studies have highlighted that levels of educational attainment tend to be lower among immigrant children. OECD data shows this inequality is most pronounced in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and above all, Belgium. However, the data also suggest that this poor performance in Belgium does not only stem from the usual socioeconomic factors associated with low attainment. So where is the Belgian education system going wrong?

“Segregation is clearly one of the main detrimental factors, but the key issue is to understand under what circumstances it can be attenuated,” says Prof. Dirk Jacobs, who received a grant from the ERC to lead the EQUOP project. “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 are investigating whether the characteristics of teachers and cohesion among staff can account for this difference.”

The EQUOP project looks at existing datasets of school composition and examination results, in combination with new data which track teacher attitudes and characteristics over time. Once the researchers have analysed all this data, they will be able to offer new insights into the effect of school composition in Belgium, a phenomenon first noted in the 1960s in racially segregated America.

School policy and teacher attitude

“The school composition effect is well documented: a concentration of pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds often causes them to collectively underperform,” says Prof. Jacobs. “But here 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 funding, 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. Preliminary results have already revealed that segregation should also be considered at classroom level, not just across schools. “Future international studies must consider internal school policies that might enforce further segregation within the schools themselves,” says Prof. Jacobs.

One of the systemic effects at play may be 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. Prof. Jacobs thinks that system might be one of the causes of the pronounced educational inequality in Belgium.

Education system reform

EQUOP findings have already made front page news in Belgium. The stories highlighted what Prof. Jacobs terms the “double-handicap” for immigrants: they start from a lower socio-economic standing and are then plunged into an education system that stunts educational achievement. 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.

Moving into its final phase, the researchers are considering the creation of a pilot intervention programme in schools that are failing their disadvantaged students. By the end of the project in June 2017, the team wants to identify what boosts attainment levels in some schools with similar socioeconomic starting positions. The challenge is to translate insights from the sociology of education into strategies that can be used for school improvement.

Prof. Jacobs concedes that sensitivity is important. “All stakeholders, pupils, teachers, parents, policymakers 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,” he adds. “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.”

The findings from EQUOP can provide useful lessons not only for Belgium but also for other countries experiencing school segregation.

Talk at TEDxFlandersSalon 2012 (in Dutch)

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Dirk Jacobs is Professor of Sociology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB, Belgium) and affiliated to the research group Ethnicity, Racism, Migrations and Exclusion (GERME). He is interested in the sociology of education, particularly with regard to the issue of equal opportunities for migrants.

Follow the EQUOP team on Twitter: @EQUOP_ERC

Find more examples of projects in the brochure: Migration and asylum: The contribution of frontier research to the understanding of human mobility across frontiers

Project information

Equal opportunities for migrant youth in educational systems with high levels of social and ethnic segregation: assessing the impact of school team resources
Dirk Jean Alexander Jacobs
Host institution:
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Call details
ERC-2011-StG, SH2
ERC funding
1 276 071 €