Impact of school segregation on performances overstated, Swedish study shows

Impact of school segregation on performances overstated, Swedish study shows
File photo of a Swedish classroom. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
The impact of ethnic segregation on the performance of school students is being significantly overstated, according to a new Swedish study.

Increased variation in performances between schools in Sweden has coincided with an increase in ethnic school segregation, the study notes, which means policy makers, school administrators and parents have drawn the intuitive conclusion that “ethnic school segregation impedes the education progress of both native born and immigrant studies”.

In order to put the validity of that conclusion to the test, Maria Brandén and Gunn Elisabeth Birkelund from Linköping University, and Ryszard Szulkin from Stockholm University studied data from students between 1998 and 2012 and sought to assess whether the proportion of immigrant students in a classroom had any impact on the performance of pupils.

The results show that the influence of the ethnic composition of classrooms on educational performance was close to zero. In order to prove that, the researchers specifically looked at siblings who went to the same school at different times, where the number of immigrants in the school changed between the different periods.

The siblings who went to a school in a period when there was a larger number of immigrant pupils enrolled performed no worse than siblings who went there when the number was smaller.

As the siblings share the same parental upbringing, socio-economic conditions and genes, the possibility of those factors influencing the results of the study could be eliminated, and the impact of ethnic composition on performance better observed.

Linköping University Institute of Analytical Sociology researcher Brandén admitted that she was surprised by how conclusive the study was, but noted that it simply helps prove that the real key to school performance is not the country a pupil is from, but their family background.

“I was surprised, but the results really aren't so different from international studies in the area. What's really the case is the absolute most important thing for how things go in school is your family background, it's there where a lot of the conditions for how things are going to go in school are determined. I also think there may be an impact on weaker student groups, but our study shows that for the average student the proportion of foreign born students has no impact,” she told The Local.

The impact of ethnic school segregation in Sweden has been a subject of debate in recent years. In April, a commission set up to find ways of improving Sweden's schools proposed a lottery system of enrolment as a way of giving schools a broader composition of students, for example.

READ ALSO: Lottery system proposal for Swedish schools met with criticism

Brandén explained however that while it is true that schools with a higher proportion of immigrants tend to have poorer grades in Sweden, the two factors do not have a cause and effect relationship.

“(The misconception) is to do with it being so difficult to differentiate between a connection and an effect. It is true that schools with a high proportion of immigrants have poorer grades and fewer people going on to upper secondary school (gymnasiet), so as such it’s easy to believe that the proportion of immigrants in a class has a negative affect on classmates,” she noted.

“But our study shows it is not primarily to do with the high proportion of immigrants, but to do with for example that the Sweden-born kids in these schools often come from environments that hamper academic performance, and the like.”

The study noted however that just because ethnic segregation in itself does not necessarily contribute to poorer academic performance, does not mean that pursuing a greater ethnic and socio-economic balance in schools is pointless, as aiming for the latter can benefit children by giving them broader social views for example.

The study suggests however that in order to pursue a more equal society, it is perhaps most important to improve integration in the parent’s generation, which in turn would create better opportunities for their children.