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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 46 - August 2005    
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SOCIAL SCIENCES
Title  School and equality

European education has changed radically over recent decades. While governments are continuing to dictate the essential rules of play, the trend is to delegate their application to other players. Yet they too have their principles, with the result that it is often entrepreneurial spirit and management tools that are reshaping school systems. The partners in the Reguleduc project looked at the situation in five countries (Belgium, France, Hungary, United Kingdom, Portugal) in an attempt to evaluate the degree of social equality in education.

School and equality © Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
Budapest 18 is an industrial district that has lost 20% of its residents over the past 15 years and where businesses are struggling. The architecture is one of high-rise blocks providing state-subsidised housing, late 19th century apartment houses and small houses set in gardens. It is a mixed neighbourhood of factory workers, office workers, and gypsies that has problems of unemployment and a level of education below the city’s average. Hungarian researchers working on the Reguleduc project looked at two local elementary schools (6-14 years): the Martyn School and ‘the Rutten’, as the locals call it.

Hungarian laboratory
The Martyn School achieves the best results in the neighbourhood, and the Rutten almost the worst. The former draws its 400 pupils principally from residential areas and provides firm discipline and intensive education. The latter has 200 pupils (but the capacity for 300) mainly living in state-subsidised housing and offers a much more relaxed learning environment. Hungarian schools have a large measure of autonomy in terms of teaching methods, as do the municipalities that govern them, and the education system has seen an increase in the number of evaluation methods, steering tools and ‘regulators’.(1) As a result, the country has become something of an educational laboratory. The local authorities have encouraged – and funded – schools where it was felt necessary to introduce remedial classes, employ speech therapists and run educational programmes for pupils with difficulties. This is what happened at the Rutten school. Highly laudable as they may be, such initiatives are not without their negative effects, however, as they have not been accompanied by efforts to bring these pupils up to a level that can permit their return to mainstream education. “The children find themselves increasingly concentrated in special establishments, in special classes, and supervised by specialist teaching, social and medico-psychological staff. This causes a certain segregation that is condemned by the people who are unwillingly reinforcing it,” note the Hungarian researchers.(2)

European trends
The trend is for efficiency and classification. The Reguleduc partners believe that the past 20 years have seen a shift in Europe’s education system that they have summed up in six points: increased autonomy of the establishments; the search, by central government, for a balance between centralisation and decentralisation; the growing importance of the external evaluation of schools and, more generally, of the education system; the ‘free choice’ of schools for parents; diversification in the choice of schools; and erosion of teacher autonomy. Power and responsibilities have therefore changed significantly and the word ‘competition’ is becoming increasingly fashionable. This is an approach modelled on that of enterprise and has brought education closer to a system that the researchers describe as virtually a ‘market’ system. The education systems have seen an increase in the number of ‘intermediaries’ (charged with developing teaching methods, assessing results, controlling quality, etc.) who provide a link between the central public authorities and the schools. 

Effects of decentralisation
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
© Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt
In Portugal, a recent policy of decentralisation has enabled various bodies – academic inspectorates, regional directorates, etc. – to develop independently of the central ministry. The researchers concentrated their analysis on the Regional Directorate for Education of the Lisbon Region (DREL), which is responsible for 30% of Portuguese pupils in an area that has the highest level of economic development in the country, as well as major social contrasts. Their conclusion was that ‘project logic’ was beginning to develop within the DREL.

The same trend towards decentralisation is also apparent in France. The Lille region, which the French partners took as their example, has a million pupils in both state and private schools. This former industrial area has serious socio-economic problems, with a high level of immigration and 31% of the schools classed as being in a ‘priority education area’ – a euphemism for ‘lagging behind in all areas’. Educational action is rationalised via audits and checklists. ‘Sites’, ‘evaluation’ and ‘results’ are all part of the vocabulary used. But is this new policy helping achieve greater equality? The researchers say they are unable to conclude categorically yes or no. Although they point to some successes in combating inequality and failure at school, there are signs that this is beginning to lose momentum. In their view, these new mechanisms “are not succeeding in effectively offsetting major economic, social and cultural determinants”. 

Variations on equality
In Belgium’s French-speaking Community, the educational networks and organising authorities had operated for many years with only minor involvement from central government. Recent years have seen a shift to greater central control, however, while continuing to allow the players in the field to enjoy a large measure of autonomy. Has this brought any improvement? On the basis of the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) figures compiled by the OECD (2000 figures), the researchers note an “inequality of results”(3) that is particularly striking compared with the other EU countries. Belgium’s French-speaking Community, along with Greece, ranks last in the equality tables, while Finland and the Netherlands lead the field. A similar result is obtained by evaluating the educational results of children on the basis of the educational attainment of the mother. In Belgium’s French-speaking Community, and also Hungary, the wide range of educational programmes available has the effect of ‘reproducing’ these levels, while it is countries such as Finland, Ireland and Scotland that succeed most in negating initial socio-cultural handicaps. 

Developments in the United Kingdom have taken a rather different turn than in the other countries studied. The role of the Local Education Authorities (LEAs), created in the late 1980s, has weakened, while central government has acquired more powers as an evaluator. Government sets quality standards while the LEAs have become intermediaries rather than initiators of education policy as such. This recentralisation has not prevented a results-oriented approach. The essential point is that it must ‘work’, as the British partners concluded on studying the situation in the London suburb of Wyeham. Pupils and schools have targets to attain, efficiency is the watchword and it is results that count with good practices serving as an example.  

School management
But it is not only in the United Kingdom that parents are increasing their demands for quality education, personalised programmes and different types of schools. “The result is growing concern for efficiency and rationalisation in implementing public policy that favours the market model and, more widely, managerial solutions imported from private enterprise,” points out Christian Maroy, project coordinator and researcher at the Catholic University of Louvain (BE). “Quality is a leitmotif of the public authorities, even if the word has a different political and ethical significance in different situations.” Efficiency, flexibility, results evaluation tools, targets, self-evaluation, steering, customer service… this is a vocabulary borrowed from business culture – and the actions are inspired by it. Schools, as well as other educational establishments such as universities, are often competing against one another. More pupils means more funding and therefore more and perhaps better teachers. We have entered the age of school management. 

(1) That is, those responsible for implementing the new rules of play introduced by the education system in the interests of successful management (standards laid down by central government and the public authorities at different levels, the rules of the individual educational establishment or teachers, consultation mechanisms, etc.). Regulation is therefore a complex process involving many players. 
(2) See Recherches sociologiques, vol. XXV, n°2, 2004 – published by the Université catholique de Louvain, Unité d'anthropologie et de sociologie. This issue is devoted to the ‘sociology of education regulations’.
(3) Equality of results represents a situation in which all pupils obtain equal results after the same period of education. 


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  • Christian Maroy – Université catholique de Louvain (BE)
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