Kaspar Burger

In recent years, levels of social segregation have increased in several European capital cities (see here). Against this background, a recent study analyzed to what extent education systems in European countries are socially segregated, and whether social segregation between schools is related to social inequality in student achievement.

Social segregation in education systems

In socially segregated systems, students from different socioeconomic backgrounds are unevenly distributed across schools. That is, a disproportionate share of disadvantaged students is clustered in specific schools and hence separated from their advantaged counterparts who attend other schools. Where students are highly socially segregated between schools, resources that contribute to students’ educational progression and success are more unequally distributed. An unequal distribution of socioeconomic resources among student populations may lead to inequalities in educational opportunities and outcomes, because schools draw on such resources informally in educating students.

This study shows that social segregation in education systems varied substantially across European countries. Segregation was relatively low in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, but considerably higher, for instance, in Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Table 1 provides a ranking of countries according to the level of social segregation in their education system.

Table 1. Levels of social segregation in European education systems.

Norway0.090
Finland0.101
Sweden0.139
Switzerland0.146
Iceland0.150
Great Britain0.182
Netherlands0.183
Denmark0.187
Estonia0.197
Ireland0.211
Serbia0.218
Croatia0.229
Spain0.232
Slovenia0.242
Lithuania0.246
Average0.248
Latvia0.254
Czech Republic0.276
Germany0.277
France0.278
Luxembourg0.280
Belgium0.282
Portugal0.288
Greece0.292
Austria0.311
Poland0.312
Slovakia0.357
Hungary0.379
Romania0.401
Bulgaria0.456
Note. Greater figures indicate greater social segregation between schools and therefore greater within-school similarity of students along socioeconomic lines. Own calculations, based on PISA 2012 data.

The link between social segregation and social inequality in student achievement

The study also examined to what extent social segregation is associated with social inequality in student achievement, that is, the strength of the link between socioeconomic status and student achievement in a given country. Figure 1 shows that there was a moderate positive relationship between segregation and social inequality in achievement. This supports theory in respect to social class inequalities in education being more pronounced in those systems where socially diverse students are less evenly distributed across schools.

Figure 1. Scatter plot of the index of social segregation and the index of social inequality in achievement.

Notes. Abbreviations: AUT: Austria; BEL: Belgium; BGR: Bulgaria; CHE: Switzerland; CZE: Czech Republic; DEU: Germany; DNK: Denmark; ESP: Spain; EST: Estonia; FIN: Finland; FRA: France; GBR: Great Britain; GRC: Greece; HRV: Croatia; HUN: Hungary; IRL: Ireland; ISL: Iceland; LTU: Lithuania; LUX: Luxembourg; LVA: Latvia; NLD: Netherlands; NOR: Norway; POL: Poland; PRT: Portugal; ROU: Romania; SRB: Serbia; SVK: Slovakia; SVN: Slovenia; SWE: Sweden.

Conclusion

The findings from this cross-national study provide evidence of an important correlate of social segregation in education systems, indicating that social segregation may contribute to the perpetuation of inequality across generations.

Acknowledgment

The study was part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No. 791804.

About the author(s)

Kaspar Burger

Dr. Kaspar Burger is a Marie Skłodowska Curie Research Fellow at the Institute of Education, University College London. His research focuses on how micro-, meso-, and macro-level characteristics shape inequalities in educational outcomes, and the extent to which such inequalities affect later life course outcomes.