Segregated School Systems Increase Social Inequality in Education

There is extensive research evidence that the social composition of schools is a significant factor in educational inequality. Students from different socio-economic status (SES) families who attend schools with a high concentration of students from high SES families tend to achieve higher test results and higher graduation rates. There are negative consequences for high and low SES students from attending low SES schools.

A new study published in the academic journal Studies in Educational Evaluation has found similar effects on educational inequality from social segregation in school systems. It found that social segregation within European education systems amplifies social disparities in educational achievement. Achievement gaps between low and high SES students tend to be higher in more highly segregated school systems.

We found that, ceteris paribus, the effect of SES on student achievement was significantly stronger in education systems with higher levels of social segregation, suggesting that social segregation within education systems may contribute to the intergenerational transmission of educational (dis)advantage. [p. 181]

This finding is highly relevant to Australia because it has one of the most highly segregated schools systems in the OECD.

The study assessed to the extent of social segregation within education systems in Europe and examined patterns of covariation between social segregation within education systems and social inequality in educational achievement using multilevel regression modelling. In doing so, it allowed for a range of individual, school, and country factors that could also contribute to social inequality in school achievement.

The findings indicate that the degree of social segregation within education systems varies considerably across European countries. The extent of social segregation was comparatively small in Scandinavian countries but substantially greater in some Central and Eastern European countries. For example, it is approximately five times greater in Bulgaria than in Norway.

The effect of social segregation on social inequality in education was fairly significant in the least socially segregated systems and noticeably larger in the most segregated school systems. In the least socially segregated education systems, a one standard-deviation (SD) increase in SES was associated with an increase in student achievement by approximately 0.29 SDs, while in the most segregated systems it was associated with an increase in achievement of roughly 0.40 SDs. The findings were found to be robust by multiple sensitivity analyses.

These findings provide new evidence of the potentially damaging effect of a socio-spatial separation of students, indicating that socioeconomic segregation in European education systems may contribute to some extent to the perpetuation of educational and, by extension, social disadvantage from one generation to the next. [p.182]

The new study complements others showing that social segregation in European education systems and US school districts exacerbates achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

A recent OECD report shows that Australia has the equal 4th most segregated school system in the OECD with 51% of disadvantaged students concentrated in disadvantaged schools. The results from PISA 2015 show that a large achievement gap of about three years of learning between high and low SES15-year-old students in Australia. This new research and earlier studies strongly suggest that high social segregation in Australia’s school system is contributing to the social inequality in education outcomes. This social segregation is fostered by a funding system that favours parent choice and private schools over addressing the needs of disadvantaged students and schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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