For years and years, the ‘perfect school’ was defined by having the right ratio of black to white, native to migrant and rich to poor. However, recent Dutch research has exposed this myth. Children at mixed schools consistently score lower grades than their peers at predominantly white or black schools.
Dutch sociology professor Jaap Dronkers has carried out research into the pros and cons of ethnic diversity in secondary education. He compared student achievement in language, math and physics of 15-year-old children in 15 Western countries. Much to his surprise, students’ grades were inversely proportional to ethnic diversity.
“I interpret lower student achievement at ethnically diverse schools to mean that a great deal of energy is spent on bridging the various cultural gaps between students. As a result, teachers are unable to focus on teaching. They keep hopping from one culture to the next. It uses up time and energy not spent on teaching.”
No data were available for the Netherlands, but Professor Dronkers believes his findings are also applicable to this country as education in surrounding countries like Denmark, Belgium and Germany is in his opinion comparable to the Netherlands.
The ethnic make-up of Dutch schools is a highly sensitive issue. The existence of separate ‘black’ and ‘white’ schools is generally regarded as undesirable. However, as long as the segregation leads to a homogenous student body, the effects are not necessarily negative. On the contrary, a ‘black’ school where 80 percent of the children were of Turkish descent outperformed a school of much greater ethnic diversity.
Another noteworthy finding from his research are the generally below-average achievements of students with an Islamic background.
“This cannot be explained by their socio-economic backgrounds or the characteristics of schools or educational systems. So what is the reason? It is very well possible that they are being discriminated against, but this also holds true for non-Islamic children. People will say: they are the children of migrant workers, but so were the Italians. The remaining factor is religion.”
Not everybody agrees with Professor Dronkers’ conclusions. Dutch writer and educational expert Anja Vink says the professor places too much emphasis on culture and religion. She argues that socio-economical circumstances are widely accepted as determining factors for the educational achievement of children.
“We are focussing on colour, culture and religion, but what is being left out is that these children are from poor families. This could also apply to poor native children. If you attend a ‘white trash school’ you would get the same results. You will see this in the provinces of Friesland, Groningen en Limburg.”
Highly educated parents
Ms Vink, who wrote a book on black schools in the Netherlands, says that the conclusion that Islamic students are falling behind also merits further explanation.
“This may be true of Moroccan and Turkish children, but children of Afghan, Iranian and Iraqi descent often do better in school than even some native children. The explanation lies in the fact that they are children of highly-educated parents.”
Professor Dronkers agrees that ethnic diversity can have a positive effect on children of highly educated parents. “In that case there is an added value.” The scientist says that migrant children from non-Islamic countries like China, South Korea and India are also a positive exception to the rule.