Opinions - 16.08.2022 - 00:00 

Swiss schools: educational success thanks to well mixed classes

Cities such as Berne and Uster want to mix classes more thoroughly in the future. Children from educationally disadvantaged households or with a migrant background will be distributed more evenly among schools and classes in order to improve the learning success of the whole class. Researchers from the Universities of St.Gallen (HSG) and Lausanne (UNIL) have examined the effects of better mixing. They recommend that refugee children should also be integrated into regular classes as quickly as possible.

16 August 2022. With the current influx of Ukrainian people looking for protection, a new dimension has been added to the policy of better mixed classes. Should children who have fled from the war be taught in special integration classes? Or would it be better to integrate them into regular classes right from the start? The way this is currently being handled varies depending on the canton, the municipality or the type of accommodation provided for the refugees.

Educational and career prospects also depend on the composition of the class
Besides the impact on teachers and existing classes, it is important to know the impact on the children concerned themselves as well. An initial indication of the effects to be expected is provided by a study conducted by researchers of the Universities of St.Gallen and Lausanne. This study examines the extent to which the educational prospects and career choices of children with a migrant background depend on the composition of the class. The researchers make a distinction between the effect of more fellow pupils with a migrant background and specifically more fellow pupils from the same migrant group (for instance, Portuguese-speaking fellow pupils). The objective is to find out whether ethnic clusters in schools or classrooms lead to a situation whereby these pupils’ educational and career prospects deteriorate.

There are various possibilities of how ethnic clusters can take effect. On the one hand, the speed at which pupils learn the local language is slowed down. However, their command of the language is important, both at school and on the labour market. On the other hand, ethnic groups can have a positive effect as a network that provides pupils with better opportunities on the labour market. Finally, there may also be cultural differences, for example with regard to the value that is accorded to education in an academic-stream secondary school. These culturally shaped values can become reinforced in clusters.

In their study, the researchers compare several years inside one school which has more or less fellow pupils with a migrant background in the 8th (final) class of primary school. This local comparison within one single school makes it possible for other effects, such as the quality of the local labour market, to be kept at a constant level. On the basis of nationwide data covering seven years (more than 120,000 pupils with a migrant background), the researchers find that one additional fellow pupil with a non-local native language reduces the probability of a changeover into an academic-stream secondary school by 0.2 percentage points. However, this is compensated for by an increase in the proportion of pupils who take up vocational training.

Integrating refugee children in regular classes as quickly as possible
If we look more specifically at what happens when the proportion of children from the same migrant group is increased, the picture changes slightly. On the one hand, the negative effects on a changeover into an academic-stream secondary school are doubled, but at 0.4 percentage points still remain moderate. On the other hand, vocational training cannot wholly compensate for this effect any longer. In the worst case – thus the study – then children will end up without any education more frequently. 

Even though the study cannot be compared with the current situation on a one-to-one basis, it still provides indications that integrating the Ukrainian refugee children into regular classes as quickly as possible is preferable to grouping them in special integration classes. In the longer term, in particular, this will allow for good integration, successful career prospects and thus also reduce the burden on the Swiss welfare state.

The authors of this op-ed: Dr. Caroline Chuard, Dr. Annatina Aerne, Dr. Simone Balestra, Prof. Dr. Beatrix Eugster and Prof. Dr. Roland Hodler (Universities of St.Gallen and Lausanne)

Image: Adobe Stock / Vasyl

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