How do Europe’s schools treat minority ethnic youth?

Compulsory education in Europe shows signs of failing sizeable groups of children who are either not receiving primary education, leaving school without learning basic literacy and numeracy skills, or dropping out of secondary school before gaining any of the qualifications needed to get a job. As children from poor families of minority ethnic backgrounds are most at risk of these outcomes, the EDUMIGROM project investigates the extent to which ethnic differences in education lead to inequalities in future prospects among different urban youth groups.

The collaboration, launched in March 2008 under the EU’s 7th Framework Programme, is led by the Central European University in Hungary, and involves nine partners from old and new Member States – the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The three most important aspects of educational systems that impact on the school career and life prospects of minority ethnic youth are institutional infrastructure (who manages, finances and maintains quality), regulations on admission and attendance, and dominant school practices. Substantial segments of ethnic minorities are becoming the low-performing users of schools, resulting in limited potential for life-long learning, while ‘white flight’ (white nationals fleeing urban communities as the minority population increases) reinforces patterns of educational segregation, intensifying tensions between schools and communities.

The project recognises that legal arrangements on compulsory education vary considerably throughout Europe. Some countries specify a school leaving age; some, like the UK, make ‘education’ rather than schooling compulsory, allowing home schooling; others define the number of years of compulsory schooling without specifying a leaving age. Some European Member States regard the right to education as belonging only to citizens and strictly-defined groups of non-citizens; some embrace legal immigrants but exclude ‘undocumented people’, while others cover all children on the country’s soil at any given time.

Educational systems across Europe have diverse ways of tracking students into different areas of study. Vocational tracks attended mainly by minority ethnic students do not provide the necessary skills for successful entrance to the labour market. Early tracking works to the detriment of minority ethnic groups, who often experience conflicting values, norms, and practices between their home and school environments. Thus, distorted identities may limit their aspirations for successful inclusion in society and contribute to attempts at ethnic separation. Segregation in education also often leads to a downgrading of the quality and content of teaching and results in lowered school performances and poorer labour market opportunities. Segregation in education tends to contribute to early ethnic enclosure and isolation, as well as to the reproduction of inequalities.

In addition to a series of reports based on original research in the partner countries, the project has produced three major international comparative studies: ‘Comparative Report on Education’, ‘Comparative Report on Education Policies for Inclusion’, and ‘Comparative Report on Ethnic Relations’ which examine the similarities and differences in ‘hot ethnic issues’ across different national contexts. Common issues include:

  • Migrant children usually have poor access to pre-school facilities.
  • Minority ethnic students tend to become concentrated in certain schools and in certain classes within schools.
  • In separate schools, minority education pupils face less tension but often perform to lower expectations.
  • Overall, educational attainment of minority ethnic youth is less favourable but with some important internal variations.

Country variations include:

  • In the UK, Pakistani pupils feel the most isolated, Caribbean pupils are more integrated but feel aggrieved at their treatment in school, while white middle class pupils deny the significance of race as a marker of identity.
  • In France, the most relevant factor for students in deciding to stay on beyond compulsory schooling was their academic stream, not their ethnic identity or social origin.
  • In Hungary, few Roma students reached the elite top stream of secondary schools, meaning that advancement to higher education was extremely rare and in the Czech Republic, Roma girls in particular have a high drop-out rate from secondary schooling.

Forthcoming reports will cover the impact of segregation/inclusion on student performance, self-esteem and aspirations, and a comparative survey report examining educational systems' impact on minority ethnic youth will be prepared by the beginning of the summer 2010.

Researchers recommend that policies for compulsory education should take account of the complexity of socio-economic factors and how these interact with different ethnic backgrounds. Education policies should act in concert with policies on employment, welfare and housing, which are the most important areas where inequalities by class and ethnicity are evident.

While recognising the great variations in school systems, and the differences in socio-economic conditions and inter-ethnic relations in an enlarged Europe, the researchers hope their recommendations will help establish some common principles of a European-wide policy to make compulsory education accessible for all.

EDUMIGROM - Ethnic Differences in Education and Diverging Prospects for Urban Youth in an Enlarged Europe (duration: 1/3/2008 – 28/2/2011) is a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 3 – Major trends in society and their implications.


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Contact: Violetta Zentai,