Choice of school determines pupil performance, says study


Flanders’ Equal Opportunities in Education Policy has had a very limited effect on bridging the gap in academic performance of children from different socio-economic backgrounds, according to KU Leuven researchers

‘Perpetuates segregation’

The school a child attends has much more influence on how well they do than the family’s immigration background or financial situation. That is one of the conclusions of a study conducted by researchers at KU Leuven, which points to several other shortcomings in creating equal opportunities for children in Flanders.

While the region comes in at the top of international rankings for general educational performance, it has long been lagging behind in terms of social equality. It has one of Europe’s largest gaps in performance levels between disenfranchised and more privileged children.

Consecutive Flemish governments have worked to solve the problem, and a milestone was reached in 2003 when the Gelijkeonderwijskansenbeleid, or Equal Opportunities in Education Policy, was initiated. The programme provided schools with extra resources based on their number of pupils with certain characteristics, such as from a low-income family, with a mother without a higher education degree or without a strong grasp of Dutch. Schools with a significant percentage of these students are referred to as “concentration schools”.

Limited results

The new study by KU Leuven researchers Emilie Franck and Ides Nicaise show that the programme has seen very limited results. Using the results of 15-year-olds on the international Pisa test for mathematics and reading, they showed a mean difference of 174 points between students at the concentration schools and other schools.

“That equals a learning disadvantage of four years,” explains Nicaise. “The mean social background of the school – the social background of all pupils together – had a much greater impact on the results than the individual background of the pupils.”

According to Nicaise there are several reasons behind the limited success of the Equal Opportunities policy. One of them concerns the allocation of extra resources to concentration schools.

Concentration schools struggle to find and keep good, experienced teachers

- Professor Ides Nicaise

“According to the programme, schools with more disenfranchised pupils are allocated more paid hours for its teaching staff,” he says, “but we see concentration schools struggling to find and keep good, experienced teachers. Mostly they have no other choice but to hire inexperienced teachers, ending up with lower quality education and still not filling up the hours they are entitled to.”

This has led to more pupils being held back a year in Flanders than in most EU countries. In addition, in most other countries, pupils choose between general or vocational education at age 16. In Flanders, that age is 12.

Together, all of these issues “perpetuates segregation,” according to Nicaise, “with an enormous effect on social inequality. Rather weak pupils are encouraged to pursue easier curricula, with a detrimental effect on their skills at age 15.”

Photo courtesy Schoolmakers