Can-do: Mentors inspire vulnerable students at Pep


The statistics related to the impact of a migration background on academic performance encouraged one Antwerp woman to found an organisation to tackle the problem

Challenging expectations

“If I can do it, so can you.” That is the motto of non-profit organisation Pep, which launched last month in Antwerp. And it’s a powerful statement, considering the messengers.

Pep stands for Positive Education Psychology, and at its core is a team of volunteers who act as academic mentors to secondary school pupils. They all come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they all went on to higher education and to successful careers. They beat the odds, in other words.

Rihab Hajjaji (pictured) would like to see more youth beat those odds. “Why is it the exception that someone who looks like me is successful in education? Why isn’t it the rule?” she asks.

Hajjaji, 26, is the founder and chair of Pep. She has seen first-hand how one person can make a huge difference in their environment.

Her parents arrived in Flanders from Morocco, and she was the first in her family to pursue higher education. She has a master’s degree in business economics and now works as a project manager for IBM.

And both her sisters followed her lead. One has the same degree as her; the other is in law school. Her two younger brothers – twins – are still in secondary school but both plan to go to university. Their cousins who live in Belgium have also been positively influenced.

Knock-on effect

But it could have gone much differently. “I went to a very white school,” says Hajjaji, “and I was pushed to perform at their level.” Those expectations, she says, were key to her academic performance.

Her parents were told, however, that Hajjaji’s brothers needed to be put in special education. The main reason: Their Dutch wasn’t very good. Their mother simply enrolled them in a different school in a different educational network. They did fine, and are both in the general education (ASO) track today.

“Thanks to my mother,” she says, “a decision was made that determined their lives entirely.”

There is a very high level of segregation. There are ‘rich schools’ and ‘poor schools’

- Rihab Hajjaji

According to Hajjaji, a disproportionate number of children from a migration background are put into special education, often with the reasoning that they won’t be able to keep up in regular education because of language differences. And those pupils tend to underperform all the way up to leaving secondary school – if they earn a diploma at all.

According to 2015 figures released by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) – the OECD’s world-leading triennial survey that helps set educational policies around the world – Flanders has the largest gap in pupil performance based on ethnicity in the world.

It was a figure that shocked educators and politicians in the region. And it shocked Hajjaji, too. “Your socio-economic background determines your opportunities and whether you will succeed,” she says.

Too many drop-outs

She sees two major issues at play: Putting kids who speak Dutch as a second language into special education and later tracking them outside of ASO, and grouping children in certain schools according to their backgrounds.

“There is a very high level of segregation,” she says. “There are ‘rich schools’ and ‘poor schools’. I went to a mostly white school, and I was pushed to perform. But if you are in a class where everyone is weak, then obviously you will not be pushed. Some schools in Antwerp have a 90% rate of students from low socio-economic backgrounds. You later see half those students dropping out. That is not acceptable.”

Aside from needing a mix of students in every school and every class, she says, you need a mix of teachers. “Look at super diverse cities like Antwerp. In a few years, people of ethnic backgrounds will be the majority population there. But when you look at the classroom, the teachers are not diverse. If you have 30 kids with the same background in one class and a teacher at the front of this class who cannot relate to them, then you have a problem.”

We believe that everybody can do anything they want, but that not everybody knows how

- Rihab Hajjaji

Pep is targeting pupils and parents to try to alter the educational trajectories – and hence the very lives – of students with migrant backgrounds and also students from underprivileged backgrounds in general. A core working group of 10 people organise 120 volunteer mentors.

“We are all experts in this domain – the tools you need to maintain a successful education and how to put them to use,” she says.

Flemish education minister Hilde Crevits came to the launch of Pep and surprised the organisation with one-time funding of €50,000. It has also received money from the City of Antwerp, the King Baudouin Foundation and BNP Paribas Fortis.

Nearly 140 students have signed up for personal help. “The role models look over their marks with them and discuss how they can improve their current situation. They inspire them. We believe that everybody can do anything they want, but that not everybody knows how.”