Mixed Schools Make for a More Socially Tolerant Society

Young people in schools with ethnically diverse classrooms are likely to have more favourable attitudes towards immigrants, according to a new international study from the Institute of Education at the University College London. This is particularly true when there are many second-generation immigrants in the class.

More ethnically-mixed classrooms could thus make English students more tolerant, suggests Dr Jan Germen Janmaat, who led the study. He argues that the findings have important implications for policy-makers and school leaders who make decisions about school admissions. “Schools should be as inclusive in their admissions policies as possible,” he says.

Janmaat found that classroom ethnic mix works best at medium and higher levels of diversity (more than 15 per cent of the class). He suggests that “policy makers should consider ways to increase ethnic diversity in schools as a strategy to foster inclusive attitudes among the native majority.”

The study is published in the European Sociological Review and examined the relationship between classroom ethnic diversity and the attitudes of ‘native’ students (those with family roots in their countries) towards immigrants in 14 European countries. The study drew on survey data from the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study collected in 2009 among more than 100,000 13 and 14-year-olds in 38 countries worldwide.

Janmaat notes that this relationship varies across countries and classrooms. In environments with many first generation migrant children (those born abroad), diversity is not having much of an effect. By contrast, in classrooms with many second-generation migrant students (children whose parents were born abroad) diversity enhances inclusive attitudes.

Better contact between ‘native’ and ‘second generation’ students is likely to explain this difference. “Second generation students are more familiar with the receiving country’s culture and customs and have a better command of its language,” says Janmaat. “They also have more friendships with native students.”

At a time when political parties across Europe are responding to widespread concern about immigration, this research suggests that this issue could diminish over time with the right policies. “Once immigrant communities have become more settled and integrated in their new countries, positive effects of ethnic mixing could well emerge everywhere,” Janmaat suggests. “Diverse classrooms could play a key role in fostering this change.”

Inclusive attitudes were measured with questions on whether immigrants should have the same rights and opportunities as everybody else and should be allowed to speak their own language and maintain their own customs and lifestyle.

Although England’s youth were moderately well-disposed towards immigrants their score on a range of questions testing tolerance was low compared to 16 out of 17 other countries (see chart). Only in the Netherlands did young people hold less positive views.

“How the native population is disposed towards immigrants becomes an ever greater issue as Western societies become increasingly diverse due to immigration. In the interest of social cohesion it is of paramount importance that native majorities do not develop prejudiced or hostile attitudes towards immigrants,” says Janmaat.

The study has significant implications for Australia as a society with a large percentage of its population born overseas. Australia has one of the highest percentages of students from immigrant families in the OECD. In 2012, 23 per cent of 15-year old students in Australia were from immigrant families compared to 11 per cent across the OECD, even larger than in the United States (22 per cent) and almost double that of the UK (13 per cent).

As we have seen in recent times, tolerance of cultural difference has become an important social issue. It is not being helped by increasing social segregation between schools, particularly between public and private schools. The more segregated we make our schools, the more difficult it will to maintain a society in which adults have the knowledge and skills to live and work together in a multicultural society. As the former president of the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia, Pino Migliorino, has said:

Australian schools are the frontline of our multicultural society. For generations they have been the bridge that migrant children have used to cross from the homes they grew up in, to the broader Australian society. They have been the first experience of Australian life for many who grew up in homes where English was not spoken.
Most of this has happened at our public schools which have welcomed wave after wave of migrant children. Our multicultural classrooms and playgrounds provide that opportunity for all children to come together, to learn together and play together side by side….
Our public schools are the real training ground for the skills we will need for our interactions with the rest of the world. Public schools not only deliver social inclusion but real multicultural sensibility.

Public schools need better support for them to continue to play this central role in society – building a socially inclusive and tolerant society.

Trevor Cobbold

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