Making room for poor kids at school produces fairer societies

Europe-wide study finds educational policies directly influence social strata. Andrew Masterson reports.

Making it possible for students of all backgrounds to access tertiary education pays long-term, society-wide benefits.

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Educational policies that offer more opportunities to disadvantaged children pay long-term benefits for the whole of society, research shows.

In a paper published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, researchers led by Björn Högberg from Umeå University in Sweden examine the consequences of policies that make it easier for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access tertiary education.

To do so, they use the results of the continent-wide European Social Survey, which asks questions of participants every two years in order to calculate life satisfaction. Högberg and colleagues carved out a database comprising 15,000 people aged between 18 and 29 years, resident in 25 countries.

The central measure the researchers use is called the “happiness gap”, expressed as the relative difference in life satisfaction between any two groups of people – people with or without children, for instance, or, in this case, people defined as rich and poor.

There is ample evidence to suggest that in general terms money can indeed buy happiness, with studies consistently showing that rich folk are, on average, happier than poor folk.

Högberg’s team again confirmed the existence of a happiness gap between young people from wealthy and disadvantaged backgrounds – but found that the width of that gap is very strongly influenced by the educational policies of each country.

The researchers looked in particular at a range of approaches designed to ease the way for people from poorer backgrounds to get into university.

Some of these involved secondary school strategies designed to ameliorate the fact that rich kids tend to do better than poor kids, especially in their early years. This particularly impacts higher education possibilities if the system employs tracking – funnelling students according to results – at a young age.

Other policies to come under the spotlight were subsidising institutions to provide low cost education to all, subsidising tertiary institutions to allow them to increase their student intake, and giving students a second chance at exams if they fail at the first attempt.

The results indicated that policies designed to provide educational opportunities and encouragement to all resulted in a much narrower happiness gap. Indeed, in countries with truly progressive education systems the gap pretty much disappeared.

“Among the wealthier western European countries, those with more inclusive education systems, such as Denmark, had smaller social differences (in fact none at all, on average) than equally wealthy but less inclusive countries, such as the UK or Germany,” says Högberg.

The research found that education systems focussed on rigidly numerical outcomes – such as test scores – rather than issues of equity and access tended to fuel societies where life satisfaction was much more stratified according to background.

“Schools have the potential to have a huge impact on children and youth and on their life chances, but a narrow focus on academic outcomes such as test results provides only an incomplete picture of the consequences of education policies,” says Högberg.

“I would recommend that education policy, especially at higher levels, are designed such that the opportunity to access education, should one want to, is maximised, either through institutional measures, such as widening access for poorer students, or through financial measures – such as lowering student fees.”

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