School transition: Discrimination against children of less-educated, lower income parents

Sociologists at Mainz University investigate the educational opportunities of year four pupils in Wiesbaden relative to their social background


If a child comes from a lower social class, it will not receive the same recommendation for secondary education as a child from a higher social class, even if both children achieve the same grades in elementary school. "It appears that teachers at elementary schools not only look at school grades when deciding on the recommendations they make with regard to secondary schooling after year four, but also take into account the children's social background," says Professor Dr. Dr. Stefan Hradil of the Department of Sociology at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. As the results of Professor Hradil’s survey suggest, children from immigrant families frequently receive less favorable educational recommendations which is not due to their foreign origin as such, but rather this is attributable to the fact that immigrants’ social status is – on average – lower. "Although comparable studies are rare, it may be assumed that the situation is similar in many other places in the Federal Republic of Germany," says Hradil. Under his supervision, the Division of Social Structure and Social Disparity of the Department of Sociology at Mainz University carried out the survey in cooperation with the Agency for Social Work of the city of Wiesbaden.

A joint social report on educational participation in the city of Wiesbaden was released in 2005. Already this report made it clear that an efficient educational policy constitutes the best future-oriented social and economic approach and that the scarce public resources should be used accordingly. The report showed that boys on the one hand and children from an immigrant background on the other hand tended to be disadvantaged in terms of educational success in Wiesbaden - and in the rest of Germany. At the time, however, it was not possible to take into account the children’s social background - a data lacuna that has now been closed by means of the research report submitted.

The data for this 70-page report were collected in March 2007. All 35 state elementary schools and 103 of 105 year four classes participated. Of the total of 2,303 elementary school students in year four, 2,032 (i.e., 88%) were actually surveyed - a very high response rate. With regard to social structure, the comprehensive survey showed that 43% of all elementary school students in Wiesbaden are from an immigrant background, which means that at least one parent of the child or even the child itself was not born in Germany. Of the children from an immigrant background, some 45% live in circumstances below the poverty line, while the corresponding figure is only 17% for children from a non-immigrant background. Almost 46% of all pupils from immigrant families and 23% of those from indigenous families have a social background that is educationally deprived, i.e., they come from the "lower" or "lower middle" classes - social classifications which are based on the parents' educational qualifications and the per capita income of the family.

"We found that it is mainly the affiliation with a specific social class that influences children’s school grades and their parents’ educational expectations," so Hradil in explanation of the survey results. Thus, the grades of "lower class" children in the subjects Mathematics and German are on average at least one grade lower than those of children from the "upper class," no matter immigrant or non-immigrant. Among girls, this difference is even more pronounced and can amount to 1.4 grade points. Children from immigrant families, however, are on average only 0.2 - 0.3 grade points behind children from indigenous families. An accompanying survey of the parents showed that 54% of all parents wanted their child to enter an academically-orientated secondary school. Parents from higher social classes had higher educational expectations than parents from the lower class. "We also found these higher educational aspirations in the upper class even where their children had grades similar to children from the lower class," added Hradil.

The educational recommendations tend to follow this trend. Eighty-one percent of all “upper-class” children are recommended for academically-orientated secondary education, whereas this is the case for only 14% of all “lower-class” children. The better the child’s social background, the less frequently are they recommended for vocational secondary education, while there are practically no such recommendations for "upper class" children.

The Mainz sociologists found that it was the parents’ educational qualifications that provided the clearest indicator of whether the child would receive a recommendation for a more academic secondary education. Where the parents have at most a nine year basis school education, children from a non-immigrant background in the lowest income group only have an 18% chance of being recommended for academic secondary education. This probability increases to about 63% if at least one parent has a university entrance qualification. In the upper income group, the probability of a recommendation for academic secondary education is approximately 45% if the parents have at most a nine year basis school education, but this increases to about 85% if at least one parent has a university entrance qualification. "Although the income of the parents does play a role in whether their children are recommended for academic secondary education, their own educational qualifications are more important in that respect," Hradil summarizes the situation.

If children with an immigrant background are compared with others, it emerges that 66% of non-immigrant children are recommended for academic secondary education, compared with only 50% of immigrant children. This means that children from immigrant families have fewer educational opportunities than German children. "This gap can be almost entirely traced to the poorer income and educational status of the households with an immigration background. The poorer educational opportunities of immigrants are thus ultimately an ‘underclass phenomenon’," the report states.

This is not the only factor, however: Educational recommendations are even determined by social class when pupils achieve the same grades. It is true that the grade a child achieves is still the most important factor that determines whether that child receives a recommendation for academically-orientated secondary education. However, if only children with an average grade of 2.0 are considered, those from the lowest educational and income group only have a 76% chance of being recommended for academically-orientated secondary education while almost all (96%) children in the highest educational and income group are recommended for this form of secondary education. In the case of children who achieve lower grades, the social background plays an even greater role. The authors of the study suggest that there are many possible reasons why children from the lower social classes are less frequently advised to enter academic secondary education: These can include subconscious discrimination by the class teacher or different educational expectations of the parents, for example. An immigration background, on the other hand, does not have a negative effect on educational recommendations, i.e. children of immigrants are not actually disadvantaged if their social background is taken into account.

The survey also showed that the transition to high school almost always conforms to the educational recommendations. "Thus, to a certain extent, the transition to high school is not necessarily in keeping with performance. Children from less well educated parents with a lower income are the victims of discrimination," concludes the study.