Nine charts to understand the scale of school segregation in France

She disappeared from the political radar for five years under the mandate of Jean-Michel Blanquer. But since then, the issue of social diversity has regularly returned to the spotlight. After Pap Ndiaye made it one of his hobby horses (although his plan didn't achieve much), the escapades of short-lived Minister of National Education Amélie Oudéa-Castera forced the topic to the top of the agenda in early 2024 week, a parliamentary report was released on public financing of private education, which specifically questions the contribution of this sector to segregation in schools.

It's economist Youssef Souidi's turn to lead the debate, with the publication this Wednesday, April 10, of a book entitled Towards school secession? The mechanics of segregation in secondary school (Fayard, 232 pages, 20 euros). Based on a wealth of data, this college-oriented book undoubtedly offers the most comprehensive overview of the issue and allows measuring both the scale of the phenomenon and the complexity of the response to it, although one thing is clear: we will not be able to improve social diversity if we do not rethink the privileges given to the private sector in terms of employment and selection of students. Demonstration in nine graphics taken from his work.

A big dodge

The first observation, simple and brutal, is the impressive gap in the social composition of the faculties: between the 10% of the most popular faculties and the 10% of the most selected, the proportion of students from favored social backgrounds varies almost 1 to 9.

One of the main explanations for this gap is, of course, residential segregation: there would be a lot less “popular” colleges and “ghetto” colleges if there weren't some upscale neighborhoods and other poor ones.

However, this connection is far from mechanical, insists Youssef Souidi. This is also one of the most impressive results of his work: the situation in which, within his college, the student finds himself more or less of the social composition of his neighborhood is a minority.

“Segregation in schools is like residential segregation magnified,” the researcher summarizes.

In addition to the uneven distribution of social groups in space, there are avoidance behaviors that exacerbate segregation. Statistics show that families in a privileged position avoid high schools in the most disadvantaged areas en masse when they enter the sixth form. This leakage decreases as the social composition of the faculty increases.

We also observe the same progress for disadvantaged families: even if the “tilt” is clearly attenuated, more than 30% of them still avoid the sector college when it is highly disadvantaged, compared to only 20% when it is highly favoured.

Exemptions that allow students to join another public college (rare languages, teaching with a flexible schedule, etc.) encourage this movement of avoidance, and the proportion of students who use them varies between 7% and 17%, depending on the social profile of the family and the college sector. But according to Youssef Souidi, they do little to exacerbate divisions: if we banned them tomorrow, the level of social segregation in school would remain essentially unchanged.

No, truancy is essentially driven by recourse to the private sector, which often offers a local solution to escaping the college sector. This is evident in Paris, where almost the entire population can find a private college less than a 15-minute walk from their home. But this share is still significant in smaller cities.

Such a structure “forces families to make difficult decisions regarding their child's education”, according to Youssef Souidi:

“The distribution system as organized today puts (…) considerable pressure on families who, knowing that it is possible to avoid a sector college, are encouraged to behave as consumers of educational services, comparing the estimated costs and benefits of nearby institutions , in order to finally choose the one that will bring them maximum satisfaction. »

Furthermore, private employment, as we now know, is not socially neutral: most colleges in the sector are among the top 10% of socially advantaged institutions, while state colleges are highly dispersed. Despite the diversity of local situations, with sometimes private colleges with unfavorable or even very unfavorable employment, this observation can be generalized, apart from the often highlighted Parisian situation, to large metropolises as well as to smaller ones (Dijon, Brest, Perpignan… ).

The reasons for the low presence of children from disadvantaged families in the private sector are still insufficiently known. Without knowing the candidate base, we don't know to what extent the establishments singled out or excluded themselves. Youssef Souidi nevertheless points out many factors that can prevent the best intentions: the difficulty of accessing information for each institution, the sometimes demanding application file (letter of recommendation or motivation), not to mention the tuition fees that can be a big obstacle for modest households.

Another indicator of the selectivity of the private sector is that a student with a low academic level is much more likely to change colleges during their studies if that college is private.

Although the reasons for this phenomenon are poorly known, the available elements nevertheless “give content to the idea that some private institutions reject the least promising elements – it is up to the state faculties to ensure their welcome”, assures Youssef Souidi.

However, it would be easy to burden only the private sector, even if it has a dominant role. Forms of segregation, not necessarily social, also exist within public institutions. Therefore, students are unevenly distributed across faculties according to the level of knowledge of French and mathematics.

Segregation also occurs within institutions, through the constitution of classes. Regardless of the context, there can be a gap between two classes in the same school, due to the balance that must be respected between boys and girls, but also the grouping of students who have chosen the same option, for example.

The school card, moreover, remains unimaginable in school policies. Long considered a simple management tool, monitoring the contours of the sector is a skill that has been appropriated in various ways by the general councils, which inherited it in 2004. The latter do not always have the tools and skills necessary to carry out in-depth work in this area, especially if we want to set social goals. diversity that is not always easy to achieve.

As a result, in some cases nothing moves even though the perimeters should change; in others, divisions create or reinforce social divisions.

According to Youssef Souidi, who has analyzed the employment sectors of more than 2,000 colleges, the differences in social composition between sectors and neighborhoods, which we observe for a small fraction of colleges, generally work against those institutions at the most disadvantage, which departments ask to “welcome the public with more with a more degraded social tone than the local area”. Other researchers have pointed out, in a certain number of cases, “discriminating boundaries”, that is, those boundaries that separate two sectors of neighboring faculties, one disadvantaged, the other much less, thus creating deep divisions between institutions sometimes barely a few hundred meters from each other.

Segregation options

What should we do after making this general observation? Within the public sector, it would be possible to raise awareness of diversity issues among staff responsible for the organization of education, for example principals.

The reform of multilingual classes is a rather telling natural experiment in this area: their abolition in 2016 suddenly led to the composition of many more mixed sixth form classes. Their gradual reintroduction the following year immediately revived the segregationist logic.

The same approach could be applied to those responsible for sectorization within the department. It would even be possible, according to Youssef Souidi, to return that authority to rectors, potentially less sensitive to political pressure.

Furthermore, numerous experiments have been carried out, in Paris as elsewhere, to reduce the logic of segregation: closing highly avoided faculties, merging sectors, implementing options in disadvantaged institutions, creating discontinuous sectors… There are many ways to think, knowing that they cannot to solve all the problems themselves and that they must be accompanied by a strong dialogue with the families in question in order to remove their fears.

As for the private sector, Youssef Souidi initially suggests establishing more transparency in recruitment methods, “for example by imagining some kind of private sector pathway”. In other words, a platform that establishes a common calendar and provides all information about each institution (expectations, number of places, selectivity rate, tuition amount, etc.), and allows you to know who applies and who is selected.

On the idea of ​​modulating funding according to efforts in terms of social diversity, mentioned again last week in the report of the representatives Paul Vannier and Christophe Weissberg, Youssef Souidi emphasizes the methodological difficulties of such an approach, which refers to the indicator to be used (IPS?, stock exchange rate?) or the objectives to be set. Should a reference employment sector be defined for each private institution? In any case, compare the social profile of the candidates and those admitted and sanction those who practice social classification?

As interesting as they are, these proposals stumble, the economist notes, on the autonomy of private sector employment, which is becoming more and more difficult to justify every day, while three-quarters of it is subsidized by public money. A subject that deserves “in-depth reflection”, he recognizes. But who will dare to provoke her?

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