The Progressive Post

Safety Nets and Social Ladders: Overcoming Inequality in Education


When it comes to education in Europe, the evidence is clear: not all children have equal access to opportunity. The socioeconomic status of families has a direct impact on access to all levels of education and the degree to which children are free to choose their career and lifestyle. Across Europe, the children of parents with lower levels of education and less qualified jobs are least likely to progress to higher education and highly skilled professions.

We have to be careful when identifying the causes of these inequalities. For example, immigration status and ethnic origin are often reported as barriers to education, however lower levels of qualifications among the children of immigrants are often the result of social status rather than religion or ethnicity, given immigrants are often in lower socioeconomic groups. Common perceptions can be misleading. When students with French-born parents were compared to students with immigrant parents matched for socio-economic status, the children of immigrants had higher educational achievement.

A Eurostat report shows that, while social mobility is possible and overall education levels increase with each generation, family origins have a persistent effect on educational attainment of future generations. The study shows that more than a third of students whose parents have a low level of education, will also only achieve a low level of education. In comparison, less than 4% of students whose parents have a high level of education only reach the same low benchmarks.

Social factors: most important causes of inequality

Social factors can impact on a student’s education at the family level as well as at the school or system levels. Low household income is a primary barrier to accessing higher education, but it is not fees that lead to economic burden, given that enrolment is relatively cheap across Europe. The economic pressure comes when financial support from the family is not readily available, forcing students to enter the workforce quickly to pay their way. Often, the prospect of spending many years studying without any income – while at the same time covering the cost of books, study materials and day-to-day living – is just not possible.

The second reason students from more disadvantaged backgrounds might not engage in higher and more prestigious study programmes, is self-censoring. It may be that students from disadvantaged families do not have the cultural and social capital to undertake and complete higher studies. We see that even when students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the intellectual capacity to follow a more academic path and pursue higher qualified jobs, they simply do not believe they can.

A third factor is that lower socioeconomic status families often place less value on academic studies and this reduced perception of education can be passed on to children. This can manifest in the very first years of primary school and widen the gap between high- and low-achieving students as the years pass. It can have a long-lasting impact and result in a strong, resistant model of social reproduction.

In France, this effect is particularly important given that the traditional school system places a lot of value in classical cultural activities such as visits to museums, theatre, and the fine arts, at the expense of more popular leisure activities such as sports or popular culture. In addition, parents with lower levels of education generally know less about the local and national institutions of higher education, and may be less able to offer career counselling and advice to their children.

Repeated patterns across European countries

While intergenerational transfer can be observed across all European countries, the impact of socioeconomic status on education varies. In the Eurostat study, the continuation of a low level of education ranges from around 10% to over 70%, with the highest rates in Malta (73.5%) and Portugal (68.4%), and the smallest in Lithuania (10.2%), the Czech Republic (10.8%) and Sweden (11.3 %).

The PISA 2012 study (Programme for International Student Assessment) shows that socioeconomic status has a large impact on mathematics scores in countries such as France, Bulgaria and Slovak Republic, with socio-economically advantaged students scoring over 50 points higher than less-advantaged students – the equivalent of approximately one year of schooling. In contrast, socioeconomic status has less impact in northern European countries such as Finland, Norway and Iceland.

While these results show strong patterns of intergenerational transfer of social disadvantage, they also show that reproduction is not systematic – education and training can level the playing field for all students irrespective of social origins and boost the chances of social mobility. Proportions of students are small however, with only 6% of students in the PISA 2012 study considered “resilient”, beating the socioeconomic odds against them to exceed educational expectations.

 School systems alone CANNOT erase inequalities

Placing all of our expectations in national education systems to overcome social problems and reverse social inequalities among students would be unrealistic. Preventative and compensatory actions are necessary at the family and community levels.

Firstly, ‘readjustment’ actions are needed at the family level to reduce the consequences of social inequalities and offer the same opportunities for education. I believe that the best way to fight inequalities is to prevent them. Social reproduction patterns can be broken through better access for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to culture through libraries, museums, theatre and the arts. This can be encouraged at the local administration level with advantageous pricing systems – already in place in many regions – to compensate for the lack of opportunities offered by families and limit the continuation of disadvantage.

However in many low-income families where parents work shift or weekend hours, or in immigrant families where the parents do not speak the local language, this access to cultural institutions may not be valued or encouraged. Even if administrative efforts are made to promote access, no amount of administrative facilitation or encouragement will ever guarantee that parents adopt these behaviours if they don’t take the underlying cultural values on board.

Efforts are also required to improve the schooling systems and offer a welcoming and nurturing environment for all students. Particularly in a country like France, where the fear of failure is exceptionally strong and students’ anxiety levels high, school needs to become less of a chore and more of an enriching environment for learning at each student’s rhythm. Again, northern European countries can be cited in this regard, where even if a student comes from a family where success at school is not highly valued, they can confidently participate in learning activities without excessive fear of failure.

How to make up for inequalities

If these ‘levelling-out’ measures fail, there are still opportunities to make up for inequalities in access to education by providing safety nets. Students who do not initially follow higher studies for any of the reasons discussed above need second chances to upskill and retrain in continuing education. This is currently promoted by the European Commission’s Agenda for Adult Learning, highlighting the need to increase participation in adult learning across 32 countries.

Major funds are available for each region to develop training, although this has not yet been fully adopted and implemented across all states. In some countries like France, educational paths are chosen very early and this choice has a major impact on future professional pathways and socioeconomic status.

These ‘second chances’ reduce the importance of primary and secondary school education and can also have a positive impact for the long-term unemployed or unemployed graduates. The knowledge that safety nets exist can also alleviate student anxiety given that there will be further opportunities for retraining, later in their studies or even after entering the workforce.

Finally, more information about access to further training and higher education is needed so that all students can be better informed about appropriate education choices, and professional opportunities offered post-study.

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