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New social implications of school setting uncovered

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Posted March 27, 2014

A recent piece of theoretical research by the University of Leicester in partnership with the University of Nottingham has uncovered a hitherto unnoticed effect of school setting: setting may lead to lower levels of socioeconomic segregation across residential areas and their schools. In other words, preventing schools from streaming students, that is, from allocating them to classes according to their ability, may well have the unexpected effect of increasing the levels of socioeconomic segregation across schools and neighbourhoods.

Streaming, known as tracking in the US, is the practice by which students in a given school are separated into different groups based on their academic performance. The internal organisation of schools according to student ability is nothing new and was commonplace from the early 20th century onwards.  It remains highly controversial, generating an often heated academic and policy debate.  Politicians of all parties consistently call for an increase in setting and streaming.  Ofsted appears to support it, parents are supposed to be impressed by it and teachers often find it much easier than taking mixed-ability classes.  But a long line of academic studies has cast doubt on its effectiveness as a tactic for raising achievement among all students.

“Past research has shown that a child’s educational ability or school readiness is positively correlated with their parents’ socioeconomic background, so the conventional wisdom is that streaming generates segregation amongst households of different socioeconomic background because disadvantaged children are overrepresented in low ability groups.” Said Dr Francisco Martinez Mora of the Economics Department at the University of Leicester.  “However, that conclusion is somewhat naïve in the sense that it ignores any effect that this policy may have on the socioeconomic composition of neighbourhoods and their schools: if parents make residential choices to ensure their children are assigned to a high ability track in the local school, it is possible that streaming encourages desegregation and not the other way around. The reason is that being assigned to the top ability group is easier in schools with a smaller proportion of pupils from better-off households for the very same correlation between income and ability.”

Income desegregation may offset some of the distributional adverse effects of setting pointed out by the previous literature.  While opponents argue that it is detrimental to social mobility, this piece of research highlights how high ability children of poor households would be educated in better schools when streaming is allowed. There, they would not only have classmates and neighbourhood friends from a better social background, but they would also receive better schooling: both these factors should increase their likelihood to attend university. The socioeconomic desegregation induced by school setting may also be positive for social mobility because a residential pattern where households of different socio-economic background live near one another exposes disadvantaged adolescents to lifestyles, behaviours and ambitions typical of classmates and friends from different social backgrounds.

This latest research, just published in the Journal of Urban Economics, has applied a simple theoretical model where parents care about the school peer group of their children.  The model highlights that whether schools stream pupils or not affects the quality of the peer group a child would interact with at each school. Because the peer group is an important factor in the classroom success of a child, this in turn influences households’ location choice, and thereby affects the socio-economic composition of residential areas and their schools.

Source: University of Leicester

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