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Unequal AttainmentsEthnic educational inequalities in ten Western countries$

Anthony Heath and Yaël Brinbaum

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265741

Published to University Press Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265741.001.0001

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date: 26 May 2020

The Comparative Study of Ethnic Inequalities in Educational Careers

The Comparative Study of Ethnic Inequalities in Educational Careers

(p.1) 1 The Comparative Study of Ethnic Inequalities in Educational Careers
Unequal Attainments

Anthony Heath

Yaël Brinbaum

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides an introduction to the volume. It describes the scope of the work, namely the comparative analysis of ethnic educational inequalities in ten Western countries at different stages of the educational career, and provides the intellectual rationale. In particular, the authors ask whether ethnic inequalities can be explained by the differences in the socioeconomic circumstances of the different ethnic communities, or whether minorities experience additional ethnic penalties (or premia) over and above their socioeconomic disadvantages (or, more rarely, socioeconomic advantages). They also ask whether some countries provide more favourable contexts for the integration of the second generation than do others, and if so what are the key features of the most favourable contexts? The authors conclude by summarising the main findings of the study.

Keywords:   ethnic inequality, second generation, educational career, integration context, comparative analysis


WESTERN COUNTRIES HAVE BECOME INCREASINGLY DIVERSE in recent decades and these demographic trends are certain to continue. In countries such as Canada and the USA, ethnic diversity is long-established whereas in some European countries it is a relatively new phenomenon. But in much of the developed world the reality, if not the idea, of an ethnically homogeneous nation is a thing of the past. Importantly, there are growing populations of second, third and later generation descendants of migrants in all the major Western countries. Issues of ethnic diversity cannot therefore be reduced to questions of immigration. While European policy-makers used to think in terms of ‘guest workers’ who could be persuaded to return home, ‘home’ for the second and later generations is Western Europe or North America.

Ethnic diversity is a major challenge to policy-makers, who need to tackle issues of social justice and social integration, and to social scientists, who need to adapt to a new context theories originally formulated to explain social class inequalities within ethnically homogeneous societies. Policy-makers and social scientists now need to grapple with issues of racial discrimination in the labour market, under-representation of ethnic minorities in parliaments and legislatures, and over-representation of minorities within the criminal justice system.

In this volume our focus is on ethnic inequalities within the educational systems of ten Western countries—Belgium, Canada, England and Wales,1 (p.2) Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. Canada and the USA are classic countries of immigration with long histories of ethnic diversity; England and Wales, France and the Netherlands have large ‘post-colonial’ populations who emigrated from former colonies and dependencies; Belgium, Germany and Switzerland (and to some extent France and the Netherlands) had large numbers of guest workers recruited to fill labour shortages during the long post-war boom; Sweden recruited many labour migrants from neighbouring Nordic countries and more recently has accepted many asylum seekers. Finland also recently began to accept asylum seekers and is a comparative late-comer with the lowest proportion of children of immigrants among our ten countries. Available estimates suggest that the proportion of young people with a recent ‘migration background’ is largest in Switzerland (37%) and Canada (31%). France (25%) comes next, closely followed by Belgium (23%), Sweden (21%), the USA (21%), Germany (21%), the Netherlands (19%) and the UK (18%). In Finland the figure falls to 4 per cent (for details see Chapter 2, table 2.1). It is particularly striking that the USA and Canada, the classic countries of immigration, are far from exceptional in this particular respect (although they will have much larger minority populations of the third and higher generations, together with indigenous populations).

The volume has been prepared by a team of experts from these ten countries2 and supported through the EQUALSOC Network of Excellence.3 While the choice of countries was largely influenced by the availability of expertise within the network, we nonetheless are able to cover all the main types of migration flow and both ‘old’ and ‘new’ countries of immigration, including countries with a variety of educational and integration policies.

Education plays a pivotal role in all contemporary Western societies. It is the major stepping stone for the children of immigrants to successful economic integration (Shavit & Müller 1998). It also plays a major role in social and political integration more generally since education gives access to the skills, resources and contacts which enable individuals to participate fully in society. Our central research questions are whether the descendants of (p.3) migrants experience equality of opportunity, relative to the opportunities available to their peers from the established ethnic majority in their country of residence. Do minorities experience ‘ethnic penalties’ in Western educational systems in addition to the social class disadvantages which we know to be pervasive? We ask whether some minority groups are more successful than others; and whether some national contexts provide more favourable conditions for achieving equality of opportunity and avoiding ethnic penalties.

One of the distinctive features of our work is that we explore ethnic inequalities at several stages of the educational career—at the end of compulsory schooling when young people in most of our countries are able to leave education and enter the labour market; at the end of upper secondary school when high stakes exams such as the German Abitur and the French Baccalauréat are taken; and in tertiary education. We ask whether disadvantages are cumulative at the different stages, or whether some educational systems give young people second chances to succeed (cf. Crul 2009). Do young people from minority backgrounds fall further behind their peers as they attempt to progress to higher levels within the education system, or are there opportunities for young people from minority backgrounds to catch up?

Our interest is specifically in the education of members of the second generation. The first generation—that is, people who migrated as adults—will have received their schooling in their countries of origin (although some may have invested in post-school education after migration in order to obtain Western qualifications). Their educational level will therefore tend to reflect the nature of the educational (and social) arrangements in their countries of origin and it would not be surprising if migrants coming from less-developed countries have on average lower levels of education than are typical in the Western countries to which they have moved. The educational levels of the adult migrants cannot therefore be used to tell us about inequalities of opportunity in the Western country of destination.

There are also special considerations affecting young people who came with their families and migrated before completing their education (the ‘1.5’ generation). Young people who have had to learn a new language and adjust to a new and different educational system will often tend to lag behind, especially in their language skills, if they have had to learn a new language in the destination country (Glick & White 2003). Their educational levels will tend to reflect the age at which they migrated and the extent of the disjunction between the educational (and linguistic) systems in the countries of origin and destination. However, the second generation (along with children who arrived before the start of compulsory schooling) will have received all their formal education in the Western country of destination and will have experienced Western education throughout. For the second generation it makes (p.4) sense to talk about the inequality of opportunity that they face in their Western home. It would be of great interest to extend our enquiry to the third and later generations, but adequate data for this task is currently available only for the classic countries of immigration with their longer-established minority populations.

There are also important gender issues that we need to address. Gender inequalities in education were particularly large in some of the less-developed countries from which migrants came (Wils & Goujon 1998; Grant & Behrman 2010). It is therefore of particular interest to discover to what extent these inequalities persist among their children. Do the children of immigrants converge with the Western pattern, in which girls tend to outperform boys, or do we see echoes of the traditional gender differences that were present in many less-developed countries at the time of large-scale emigration to the West? Do ethnic minority girls suffer a ‘double disadvantage’ due to gender inequality on top of ethnic inequality? Many commentators in the West have been concerned about the traditional gender attitudes and roles found in some minority communities. Gender inequalities in the second generation may give us some clear pointers to whether such ‘non-Western’ values are likely to be maintained across generations.

The focus of this volume, therefore, is on the experiences of young men and women of the second generation (or who arrived before compulsory schooling) in Western secondary schools and higher education. The experience of the second generation, who have been born and educated in the countries of destination, is widely seen as being the crucial test of whether Western liberal democracies live up to their professed ideals of fairness and meritocracy. And a sense of being treated unfairly appears to be a major factor in generating alienation and protest (Maxwell 2009; Heath et al. 2013a).

Ethnic inequalities

A first major task of this volume is to document the nature and extent of the inequalities experienced by different minority groups. As we shall see, the nature and extent of the educational inequalities vary between minorities and between countries, and also between the different stages of the educational career. It is not a simple case where migrants or their descendants are uniformly disadvantaged. It is therefore particularly important to distinguish between the different ethnic minorities. Thus, in Western Europe many second-generation minorities, such as those whose parents came as guest workers or labour migrants from Turkey, North Africa, some parts of South Asia and the Caribbean, fare less well than their majority-group peers in Western educational systems, whereas others such as the Chinese and Indians seem to (p.5) outperform the majority group. (For overviews of recent research in Western Europe see Heath & Brinbaum 2007; Heath et al. 2008; Crul et al. 2012.)

One of the major challenges facing sociologists of education is to understand why these patterns of ethnic inequality are obtained. There are three main approaches that we can explore with the available data. A traditional approach is to check whether the socioeconomic circumstances of each minority can help to explain the differences in their educational success. In Western countries parental social class and parental education have repeatedly been found to be associated with educational inequalities among the majority group (see for example Floud et al. 1954; Boudon 1974; Shavit & Blossfeld 1993), and there is every reason to expect social class to be important in explaining minority performance too, particularly as many minorities, such as guest workers in Belgium and Germany, were largely recruited into low-skilled jobs at the bottom of the class hierarchy (Castles & Kosack 1973; Kalter & Granato 2007; Kristen & Granato 2007).

However, as we will demonstrate in later chapters, parents' socioeconomic circumstances do not provide the whole answer. They explain some of the ethnic disadvantages, especially in test scores and early leaving, but even here we find that some minorities have even lower attainment than their peers in the majority group from similarly disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. In other words, minority youth experience ethnic penalties in addition to disadvantages arising from their social class. (We use the term ‘ethnic penalty’ to refer to any disadvantage experienced by a particular ethnic minority when compared with their peers in the majority group with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. For a detailed discussion of the concept see Heath & McMahon 1997.)

We also find some examples of what might be termed ‘ethnic premia’. Thus socioeconomic background completely fails to explain the examples of ethnic minority success such as the high levels of attainment of young people whose parents came from some South and East Asian countries (Fekjaer 2007; Rothon 2007; Jonsson & Rudolphi 2011). While first-generation migrants from India or China, for example, were not as concentrated in low-skilled work as those from Turkey or North Africa, they were not able to secure high-level work in the professions or management on a par with middle-class members of the majority group. For these groups it seems that their educational success comes despite socioeconomic disadvantage. So while socioeconomic disadvantage is undoubtedly important in understanding the education of the second generation, additional explanations of an ethnic-specific kind need to be developed in order to explain the pattern of ethnic penalties and premia which remain after controlling for socioeconomic background.

One possibility is that there may be cultural differences between minorities, and contradictions or disjunctions between the cultures of the minority and the majority. While empirical research on cultural explanations for East (p.6) Asian educational success has produced mixed results (see for example Sue & Okazaki 1990; Vermeulen & Perlmann 2000; Sakamoto et al. 2009), it would not be surprising if minorities coming from less-developed origin countries encountered difficulties in the West because of their unfamiliarity with Western institutions, especially their educational systems. For the migrants themselves, language differences are also very important, and there is clear evidence that members of the 1.5 generation who have come from origin countries where a different language is spoken from that of the destination country have greater difficulties in Western educational systems (see Heath & Kilpi-Jakonen 2012 and the references cited there). We do not expect that members of the second generation from such origins will have the same linguistic difficulties, but it may well be that their parents, if they are not fluent in the language of the destination country, will be less able to provide support and knowhow in navigating the unfamiliar Western educational system (see, for example, the findings of Crul et al. 2012 on the difficulties parents from Turkey have in helping their children with homework in European educational systems).

A third type of explanation, which should not be confused with a cultural explanation, focuses on the degree to which the migrants (the parents of the second generation) were ‘positively selected’. The idea here is that migrants are not a random sample of the population of their country of origin (Lee 1966; Massey et al. 1993). Migration is not a costless or risk-free enterprise. Migrants are therefore likely to differ in various ways from non-migrants from the same country: they may have greater resources, enabling them to afford the costs of migration. They may well also have higher aspirations or drive and ambition than people who decide not to migrate (see Kao & Tienda 1995; Brinbaum & Kieffer 2005). In both these respects then, migrants may be exceptional individuals with a range of what would usually be regarded as positive traits.

These positive traits will apply particularly to the migrants themselves, though not necessarily to their children. But migration is often a family project with migrants moving to a new country in order to secure better opportunities for their children (as well as to provide remittances to their parents and family who have remained behind). Given the important role of parental socialisation and support in helping children advance through the educational system, we would expect the positive selection of the parents to be reflected in the educational careers of their children in the second generation (cf. Feliciano 2005a).

The extent to which migrants are positively selected can be expected to vary from one origin country to another, and it can thus provide a potential explanation for the differences in the educational success of children from different backgrounds. Thus migration from one European country to (p.7) another is not especially costly or risky, in the sense that return migration can easily be arranged if migration does not work out as well as hoped. Thus migration from Ireland to England, or from Finland to Sweden (both rather frequent) is not likely to involve a great deal of positive selection. In contrast, migration from a distant and less-developed country such as China or India to Europe is likely to involve much greater costs and risks, and we might therefore find much greater positive selection. In the case of migrants to the USA, Feliciano (2005b) showed in a classic empirical study that migrants from China and India were highly selected, and we might expect the same to be true in Western Europe.

It is in theory also possible that some migrant groups might be ‘negatively selected’. That is to say, they might be drawn from the lower levels of their country of origin, perhaps having been displaced from rural areas by famine, war or industrial restructuring. It has sometimes been suggested that guest workers in continental Europe after the Second World War were negatively selected, since many were recruited from rural origins to fill low-skilled work in the West. Refugees too are often thought to be negatively selected, but this is likely to vary with the circumstances which led to their emigration. All in all, it is possible that the degree of positive or negative selection of the migrant generation might help explain the variation of ethnic premia or penalties among their second-generation children.

Cross-national differences

A second major task is to explore the extent to which different Western countries provide more or less favourable environments for the descendants of migrants to succeed. Our first step is to document the level of ethnic advantage or disadvantage in each of our ten countries. This is not in fact quite as straightforward as it may appear at first since immigration patterns are often country-specific. For example, there has been large-scale emigration from Mexico to the USA, but not to any of the other nine countries in our study. These specificities often involve neighbouring countries such as the migration from Ireland to England and Wales, or from Finland to Sweden. There are also distinctive patterns of immigration from former colonies to their imperial state; for example, migration from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles to the Netherlands. It is not easy, therefore, to produce any simple index of minority disadvantage since the presence of different minorities in different destinations reduces comparability.

Nevertheless, it has often been suggested that the classic countries of immigration such as Canada and the USA provide a more favourable environment for minority integration, possibly because they have had more time (p.8) to establish appropriate institutions and mechanisms for securing integration (e.g. OECD 2006). Newer countries of immigration are, in contrast, expected to provide less favourable environments since they may retain greater barriers to social inclusion. Levels & Dronkers (2008), for example, suggest that the strong insider/outsider distinctions in some of the European countries with growing minority populations may serve to limit minority opportunities. There has also been considerable debate as to whether multicultural policies help or hinder minority integration (Reitz 1998; Koopmans et al. 2005; Koopmans 2010). Countries such as Canada, and to a lesser extent the Netherlands and England and Wales, have introduced policies such as more inclusive school curricula or support for mother-tongue teaching. Such policies were intended to accommodate minorities and to help them feel at home. But it is as yet not clear whether these policies have had the desired effect or whether, in contrast, they have served to reduce rates of integration by preserving ethnic ways of life which do not mesh well with the Western countries of destination (compare, for example, the arguments and findings of Koopmans 2010 with those of Wright & Bloemraad 2012).

In evaluating these policies we need to distinguish arrangements for integration from rules for immigration. Some countries are highly selective with respect to entry requirements while others, notably those which belong to the European Union, give free entry to nationals from a fellow member state. For example, Canada has since 1967 had a ‘point system’ for deciding who could enter the country. More highly qualified applicants, those who could speak English or French, and those with a pre-arranged job offer, secured more points and were thus able to secure entry visas. This kind of entry system could be expected to result in migrants who were more positively selected. The success of the second generation in Canada might therefore be due wholly or in part to the fact that their parents were positively selected, rather than because of Canadian multicultural policies and ease of integration for those who had been allowed to enter. In explaining cross-national differences, therefore, we need to take account of the selectivity of the immigrant populations in addition to the national arrangements for integration.

A third sort of potential explanation for cross-national differences is the nature of the educational systems (Alba et al. 2011; Crul et al. 2012). To be sure, these were often developed long before large-scale immigration had occurred, but they might nonetheless have important implications for how well the children of the immigrants are able to progress. Crul & Schneider (2010) developed a theory of ‘comparative integration context’ which emphasises the way in which national and local institutional arrangements may facilitate or hamper participation and access.

(p.9) Here we turn the common academic and policy approach to ‘integration’ on its head. The question here is not why individuals fail to participate, but why institutions fail to be inclusive

(Schneider & Crul 2012: 31).

A key distinction here is that between the educational systems that involve early selection into distinct tracks and those of a more comprehensive character. If minority students are more motivated and ambitious to succeed, then a more open and choice-driven educational system (such as those with comprehensive schools or those which provide alternative routes to tertiary education) might give them more opportunities to realise their aspirations whereas a selective system might put the emphasis more on their initial attainments and constrain them to remain within a lower or vocational track (Jackson et al. 2012).

Our central questions therefore are:

  1. 1 Do young people from ethnic minority backgrounds achieve the same, worse or greater educational success than their peers from the majority group? Are particular minority groups especially disadvantaged or successful?

  2. 2 Can we explain ethnic educational inequalities in the same way that inequalities have traditionally been explained in the West—in terms of socioeconomic factors—or are new ethnic-specific explanations needed?

  3. 3 How do these patterns vary across the educational career? Do ethnic disadvantages increase as the young people move from lower to upper secondary and tertiary levels, or are they mitigated or reversed?

  4. 4 Do gender inequalities among minority students mirror those of their parents and their countries of origin or those of their peers in the country of destination?

  5. 5 Do some Western countries provide more favourable environments for young people from minority backgrounds to achieve? If so, what immigration, integration or educational policies are most effective?

Our intellectual strategy

To answer our questions we have opted for large-scale, high-quality and representative national datasets from each country rather than drawing on cross-national datasets such as that provided by the Programme for (p.10) International Student Assessment (PISA), which has been used by a number of previous scholars to research ethnic inequalities (e.g. Marks 2005; Levels & Dronkers 2008). The PISA programme and similar studies such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study are valuable high-quality resources for cross-national comparison, and they have the great advantage that they were designed from the beginning to have comparable measures of achievement and social background. However, they were not designed for studying ethnic inequalities. In particular, their sample sizes are relatively small (typically around 4,000) and this in turn means that there will be low numbers of second-generation young people in the sample, resulting in high levels of sampling error when estimating test performance of children from specific ethnic minority backgrounds.

As a result of these small sample sizes, users of these datasets have typically combined ethnic groups into composite categories, often just distinguishing immigrants from natives (e.g. Marks 2005). Given the wide range of educational attainment found among different minority groups in each country (and the different minority groups found in different countries), combining minorities into a single composite group in this way is potentially highly misleading. For example, if one country has accepted large numbers of positively selected migrants from China, while another has predominantly accepted negatively selected migrants from Turkey, the overall gap between the educational attainments of the second generation and the majority group in the two countries may owe more to these compositional differences than to the countries' institutional arrangements. It is essential, therefore, that we do not lump all minorities together into a single second-generation category.

In addition, the PISA studies look only at performance at around the age of 15. While this is a very important stage of the educational career, it does not provide us with a picture of young people's final level of educational achievement. Indeed, an exclusive focus on achievement at this stage could be misleading in countries where there are greater opportunities for young people to move on to upper secondary and tertiary education. Brinbaum & Kieffer (2009), for example, have shown how processes vary at the different stages of education from primary education to the end of secondary education (see also Brinbaum & Guégnard 2013). As we shall see, the picture of ethnic minority educational achievement does change considerably when we look in detail at the later stages of the educational career.4

(p.11) Our strategy, therefore, was to look for datasets in each country which were sufficiently large to enable us to distinguish individual minorities. We also looked for datasets that contained measures of key concepts such as the parents' socioeconomic circumstances. In fact, surprisingly few datasets contain such measures but they are essential if we are to take account of young people's socioeconomic backgrounds. We also required that the datasets should be high-quality representative samples or population censuses enabling one to have confidence in data quality and coverage. We chose to use relatively recent (post-2000) datasets. These datasets have been accessed by our country experts and in each case are the most reliable and authoritative available. In several countries they also enable us to measure attainment at different stages of the educational career. When possible, we use longitudinal datasets, in order to analyse the whole process and the different stages of the careers. Table A1.1 gives details of the datasets used in each chapter.

Having identified suitable datasets we then harmonised the variables so that rigorous comparisons could be made. We first established for each minority in each country how its members compared with their peers from the majority group in their educational achievements at different stages of the educational system. This provided us with the basic descriptive results about second-generation educational inequalities. (Not all national datasets provided information on all stages of the educational career and hence we have different coverage of the ten countries from chapter to chapter.)

We next carried out identical statistical analyses in each country in order to take account of the socioeconomic positions of the families to which our young people belonged. From these analyses we are able to derive, for each minority group in each country, estimates of the net disadvantages (or occasionally net advantages) of each minority after taking account of socioeconomic background. These net estimates in effect tell us how members of each minority compare with their peers from the majority group with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus they indicate the extent of the ethnic penalties or, where positive, ethnic premia experienced by each ethnic group.

In order to understand the pattern of these ethnic penalties and premia we then, in the final chapter, carry out a meta-analysis exploring the extent to which the pattern and magnitude of these penalties can be explained by features of the ethnic group in that country (such as its degree of positive or negative selection) and by features of the country such as its educational system or integration policies. Following Van Tubergen et al. (2004), these can be thought of as ‘origin’, ‘destination’ and ‘community’ effects. Origin effects refer to the characteristics of the national backgrounds from which the minorities came, while destination effects refer to the characteristics of the destination countries (such as their integration and educational institutions). Community effects refer to specific combinations of particular origins and (p.12) destinations. For example, a particular origin group may be positively selected in one destination country but neutrally selected in another.

The primary contributions of the volume, therefore, are rigorous description and quantification of ethnic inequalities in educational careers in these ten major Western countries and how they differ both between minorities and between destination countries. We are therefore able to show how generalis-able are the findings from highly researched countries, such as the USA, about which minorities are more or less successful educationally. We are also able to make progress at explaining these ethnic inequalities, particularly by controlling for socioeconomic background in a standardised way and also by measuring and controlling for the degree of positive or negative selection of the different migrant groups in the meta-analysis.

This volume thus provides a comprehensive and authoritative study of the patterns of ethnic educational inequality, how they differ both between ethnic groups and between countries, and how they develop over the educational career. It covers ten Western countries—Belgium, England and Wales, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA—which have become increasingly diverse in recent years, and which provide a range of educational systems, immigration rules and integration policies, thus permitting some real progress to be made in discovering what policies help or hinder minority integration in education. We are able to compare countries with long traditions of integrating migrants with newer migration countries, and we can compare countries with more open, comprehensive educational systems and mass higher education with those maintaining traditional selective systems of education. The coverage of countries thus includes examples of all the distinctive types that have been raised in the theoretical literature as exemplifying particular patterns of ethnic minority integration.

The study follows in the tradition of a number of previous influential cross-national studies, such as Shavit and Blossfeld's path-breaking Persistent Inequality (1993) and Heath & Cheung (2007). We hope that our volume will have the same strengths as these previous studies with respect to authority of the data sources and rigour of the standardised analyses and comparisons. However, unlike these previous books we have not drafted separate chapters on each country. Instead, all the chapters are comparative. We describe the chapters briefly in the final section of this introductory chapter.

Our key findings

In Chapter 2 we provide more detailed evidence about the minorities and the key features of the ten countries. Laurence Lessard-Phillips and her colleagues begin by outlining the nature and timing of migration flows to (p.13) each of the ten countries. They then report an empirical analysis of the extent to which minorities in each country were positively or negatively selected. Following the methodology pioneered by Feliciano, they compare the educational levels of the migrants from a particular country with those of their compatriots who remained in the country of origin. From these comparisons an index of selectivity can be constructed. The results show that Canada, in line with its point system for entry, has positively selected immigrant groups, with the highest levels of positive selection being found among the Chinese and South Asians. In countries such as the USA there is a wider spread with some negatively selected groups, whereas in the classic guest worker countries of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands migrant groups are more likely to be neutrally or negatively selected. In Sweden and Finland, the index of selectivity leads us to reject the canonical notion that refugee migration is primarily negative. Among the refugee groups, positive selectivity is prevalent and is particularly evident among migrants from Africa. This is an important refutation of a common assumption about refugees.

Chapter 2 then moves on to provide an overview of the educational systems and integration policies of our ten countries. On the one hand we have a group of countries including Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands where tracking into distinct academic and vocational streams begins at lower secondary level. On the other hand, we have the systems of Canada and the USA, where there is either no (or informal) tracking in secondary school, or where tracking only starts at the upper secondary stage (England and Wales, Finland and Sweden). Integration policies, in contrast, provide a rather different grouping of countries. Here we find that policies differ quite markedly even between countries that have rather similar types of educational system. Thus Canada has much more comprehensive multicultural policies than does the USA, while the Netherlands has more extensive policies than Germany, and Sweden is more multicultural than Finland. In these respects educational and integration systems cross-cut and show a substantial degree of autonomy from each other. We cannot reduce countries into a neat typology like the distinction between liberal, social democratic and Christian democrat welfare systems.

Chapter 3 investigates the performance (grades or test scores) of minorities at the end of compulsory schooling (around age 15–16). The results show a familiar pattern to that found in much previous research, with Chinese and most Southeast and South Asian groups outperforming the majority group; and Turkish, North African, Caribbean and Sub-Saharan African groups all performing less well. However, a more surprising and novel finding is that many minorities of European background have quite low educational attainments too. This holds true of Nordic groups in Sweden, of South European groups in Canada, France, Germany and Switzerland, and of East European groups in Finland, Germany and Switzerland.

(p.14) Controlling for socioeconomic background then reveals that almost all of the performance differences exhibited by the second-generation Nordic groups in Sweden can be explained by their parents' socioeconomic circumstances. In the case of the South European, North African and Turkish groups, around half the gaps can be explained in this way too. However, socioeconomic background has little explanatory role for the Chinese, the East and South Asians or the East European groups. Indeed in some cases the differences increase after controls. While there are some differences of detail, these findings generally hold true across all ten countries in the study.

The reason for these differences in the explanatory role of social background is that the parental generation of each minority is not equally disadvan-taged socioeconomically. For socioeconomic background to explain minorities' lower test scores or grades, it needs to be true that the minority parents hold disadvantaged socioeconomic positions relative to the majority group. This proves to be the case by and large for the South European and Nordic groups as well as for the groups from Turkey and North Africa. But disadvantage is much less marked for the Sub-Saharan Africans, while the East and South Asian parents are not especially disadvantaged either. These differences in parental socioeconomic circumstances are probably due in part to differences in our ten countries' historical immigration policies, the degree of positive or negative selection of the migrants, and differing levels of discrimination experienced by the first generation in the countries of destination.

This in turn means that we have, in all of our ten countries, examples of either ethnic penalties or of ethnic premia where minority/majority differences remain which cannot be explained by socioeconomic circumstances. We find ethnic premia in the case of Chinese, East Asian and South Asian groups, and ethnic penalties for Turkish, North African, South European and some groups from the Americas. The chapter shows that these can be explained in part by the degree of selectivity of the parental generation. Moreover, once we take the degree of selectivity into account, we obtain a rather different picture of differences between countries in the opportunities they offer the children of migrants. The scale of ethnic penalties and premia in Canada, England and Wales, France and the USA prove to be fairly closely in line with what one might expect given the degree of selectivity of the parental generation. It is Sweden where minorities appear to fare better than would have been expected, while they fare worse than expected in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. Chapter 9 provides rigorous tests of the explanatory power of selectivity and of other features of the origin and destination countries.

In Chapter 4 Jan O. Jonsson and his colleagues then turn to the question of drop out or early school-leaving after the end of compulsory schooling. In many countries, the transition to (upper) secondary school, at around age 15/16, is a watershed. Young people who do not make the transition to upper (p.15) secondary school will find it harder to compete for jobs in a difficult youth labour market; and for those who do find jobs, career opportunities are limited without higher education. The issue of early school-leaving thus carries a potential story of enduring misery for ethnic minority children.

In this chapter Jonsson and his colleagues focus on just six of our countries—England and Wales, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the USA—the ones where early leaving can be defined and where suitable panel data are available for studying the influences on drop out. It is clear that in five of these six countries (the exception being England and Wales) many ethnic minority groups have higher risks of early leaving than do members of the majority populations, although as in Chapter 3 East and South Asian groups prove to be notable exceptions to this rule. The differences between the majority and minority groups are greatest in the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden while in England and Wales the white majority actually exhibits a higher drop-out rate than any of the minority groups.

As in Chapter 3, Jonsson and his colleagues then see if these minority/majority differences can be explained by the socioeconomic circumstances of the parents. They are also able to take into account the grades or test scores that the young people had obtained before leaving school (that is, the grades or test scores discussed in Chapter 3). The key finding is that, comparing minority and majority-group students with similar performance, the ethnic disadvantages disappear entirely or are reduced to trivial sizes. This holds true of most of the minorities who lagged behind in their grades or test scores. Moreover, the East and South Asian groups now appear to have somewhat less of an advantage over the majority group in their staying-on rates—because they excelled in their grades—but these groups are still much more likely to stay on at school than are comparable members of the majority group from the same socioeconomic backgrounds and with the same performance.

The analyses of Chapter 4 thus demonstrate a continuation of the ethnic inequalities found in Chapter 3. The ethnic penalties are not exacerbated, but neither are they mitigated, except in the interesting case of England and Wales where, even among students with similar grades, those from minority backgrounds have higher rates of staying on. As Jonsson and his colleagues emphasise, the key processes involved in early school-leaving are ones that take a toll on children, from the majority group and minorities alike, who live in less advantageous social class environments. Minority students suffer because they are more likely to have parents with poorer qualifications and occupying more disadvantageous social positions, but there is little sign that they generally experience additional, ethnic-specific, barriers for example arising from racial discrimination or oppositional culture.

Chapter 5 then focuses on the students who do stay on in full-time education and asks whether minority students are disproportionately channelled (p.16) into lower-status vocational tracks and excluded from the high-status academic tracks that lead on to higher education. Distinctions between academic and vocational tracks are particularly important in European countries where they can be very consequential for young people's later educational and occupational careers. However, there is no real equivalent of such tracking in North American school systems and the chapter therefore focuses on Europe.

In Chapter 5, Laurence Lessard-Phillips and her colleagues follow a similar strategy to that used in Chapter 4. Their key question is whether minority students are more likely than their peers with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and grades to be channelled into the low-prestige vocational tracks. The picture that emerges is of distinct patterns in different sets of countries. In Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, they find that minority groups are less likely to follow the academic track, but that this under-representation in prestigious tracks can be entirely explained by their socioeconomic background and grades in lower secondary school. This closely parallels the finding in Chapter 4. However, in a second group of countries—England and Wales, Finland, France and Sweden—there is a rather different story with most ethnic minorities in fact being more likely to follow the academic track than their majority-group peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and with similar grades.

The natural explanation for these different patterns is the age at which tracking starts. Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are all countries where tracking starts at relatively early stages of the school career, whereas in England and Wales, Finland, France and Sweden it does not really begin until the upper secondary stage of schooling. Early tracking may well mean that students are more constrained in the choices that they can make: once one has been in a particular track for several years, it may be quite difficult to switch to a different curriculum. In contrast, if tracking is postponed until upper secondary stage, students may have more freedom to make their own choices— in effect they will be less constrained by their educational history. Students from minority backgrounds in particular may be more inclined to aim high, perhaps because of positive selection which we described earlier and the associated ‘immigrant optimism’ of their parents which a number of scholars such as Kao & Tienda (1995) have noted. So where they are free to choose, they opt for the more ambitious option.

It is not the case, then, that ethnic disadvantages invariably increase as one moves from the lower to the upper secondary level of education. Unlike the case of social class disadvantages, which tend to cumulate as one moves through the educational career, ethnic disadvantages may be mitigated or reversed, at least in some countries. Sociologists of education have frequently demonstrated that there are negative ‘primary effects’ of a working-class background on test scores which are then compounded by negative ‘secondary effects’ at subsequent stages of the educational career (Jackson 2013). In contrast, it appears that the negative ‘primary effects’ of minority status may be followed by positive ‘secondary (p.17) effects’, thus mitigating ethnic inequalities (Heath & Brinbaum 2007).

In Chapter 6 Yaël Brinbaum and Anthony Heath explore the completion of upper secondary education. The central question here is whether the high rate of ethnic minority continuation into upper secondary education and especially into academic courses in England and Wales, Finland, France and Sweden is met with eventual success. Do the high aspirations and ambitions that we believe lie behind the positive secondary effects of ethnicity observed in Chapters 4 and 5 get translated into high completion rates at the end of upper secondary education? Or are ‘over-ambitious’ choices met with higher failure rates?

Chapter 6 finds that for many groups there is considerable continuity between the patterns found with respect to test scores, early school-leaving and final completion of upper secondary courses. Minorities such as the Turkish and North African groups who experienced ethnic penalties at the earlier stages are still the ones most likely to experience them at completion, while the Asian groups who were most likely to have ethnic premia at the earlier stages are still the most likely to have premia with respect to completion. We do not see much in the way of the positive secondary effects of ethnicity at completion which were so evident with respect to choice of track in Chapter 5.

On the other hand, there are indications that in France, Canada and the USA there are fewer ethnic penalties at the end of upper secondary education than at the end of lower secondary. While there may well be methodological reasons for this finding, it is striking that the two countries with clearest evidence of mitigation of ethnic penalties are Canada and the USA, where there is a comprehensive system of upper secondary education, high overall rates of completion and the absence of high stakes examinations. This is consistent with the arguments which we have advanced elsewhere (Jackson et al. 2012; Waters et al. 2013) about the roles of choice and selection. Where minorities can freely choose, ethnic penalties are minimised; where minorities are being chosen (for example by competitive examination) ethnic penalties reassert themselves.

In Chapter 7 Amy Lutz turns to examine ethnic minority success in securing tertiary qualifications in Belgium, Canada, England and Wales, France, the Netherlands and the USA (suitable data not being available for our other countries). As would be expected, the ethnic inequalities seen in higher education largely reflect patterns seen earlier in the educational career. Thus Chinese and Indians (in Canada, England and Wales and the USA) have higher rates of completing tertiary education than their majority-group peers, reflecting their higher test scores, low drop-out rates and high placement in the academic (p.18) track which are seen in previous chapters. Similarly, students of South European, Turkish and African background in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, together with Mexicans in the USA, tend to have lower rates of completion of higher education, again in line with their earlier educational trajectories.

While there is considerable continuity over the educational career with respect to which minority groups experience ethnic penalties or ethnic premia, there is at the same time clear evidence in Chapter 7 of the mitigation of ethnic disadvantage, just as there is in Chapter 5 on choice of the academic track in upper secondary education. If we compare the minority groups and countries which we are able to analyse in both Chapters 3 and 7, we find that there were 13 significant ethnic penalties (i.e. negative estimates after controls for socioeconomic background) in Chapter 3 (out of a total of 27 that we estimated), but only three in Chapter 7. There is also a slight increase in the number of ethnic premia—up from eight for test scores to 11 for completion. There is, then, considerable evidence of progress vis à vis the majority group. This is an important and novel finding, suggesting that higher education may give valuable ‘second chances’ for disadvantaged ethnic minorities.

Finally, do we find greater progress in the more open educational systems of Canada and the USA? There certainly is evidence of progress in both Canada and the USA. But the same pattern is apparent in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, with England and Wales showing the least change. We had expected that more open, market-oriented but highly stratified university systems like the North American ones might offer ‘second chances’ for disadvantaged minority students in a way that the mainland European systems do not. But the evidence for this is not strong. The bigger and more convincing story is that minorities, when given opportunities, are even keener than their majority-group peers to take advantage of them.

We need to remember the major differentiation within higher education between elite and non-elite institutions, especially in the USA, England and Wales and France, and so major inequalities between minorities and the majority group may persist. Nevertheless, our evidence does indicate that minorities make considerable progress over the educational career relative to their peers from the majority group. We interpret these positive ‘secondary effects’ of ethnicity to be indicative of the high levels of motivation, drive and aspirations of immigrant parents and their children, and perhaps also to what might be termed defensive over-qualification on the anticipation that they will need to be more qualified than their majority peers in order to achieve similar labour market success as a result of discrimination in the hiring process. As noted in previous chapters, these high levels of motivation and drive are readily interpretable in the light of the positive selection of the migrant (parental) generation.

In Chapter 8 Fenella Fleischmann and Cornelia Kristen take up the theme of gender inequalities in education. In many of the developing countries from (p.19) which the parents of our second generation migrated, there were (at the time of migration) very large gender inequalities. This was particularly true of origins in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. In these areas girls are still disadvantaged with regard to participation in education, and this disadvantage was even greater in earlier years when the first-generation migrants were growing up.

Given the importance of family socialisation and the traditional gender roles that many minorities are believed to advocate, it is of considerable interest to check whether these gender inequalities persist in the second generation, or whether there has been some convergence towards the Western pattern in which girls tend to outperform boys at school. Can the legacy of traditional gendered patterns of educational success still be seen among the second generation in Western countries?

The findings that emerge from the chapter are quite unequivocal. With a small number of scattered exceptions, ethnic minority girls show the same advantage over their male co-ethnics at all stages of the educational career as do majority-group girls over boys. There is no sign that minority girls suffer a double disadvantage, and indeed there are quite a number of cases, especially enrolment on the academic track in upper secondary education, where minority girls enjoy a double advantage.

There is little evidence, then, of an enduring legacy of traditional values. Given Western opportunities, minority girls take advantage of them in just the same way as majority-group girls do, possibly in order to take advantage of the subsequent employment opportunities that open up for better-educated women in Western societies. As far as gender inequality is concerned, the attention should turn to the plight of boys from some ethnic minority groups, who do appear to have significant double disadvantages, especially with respect to continuation in school after the end of compulsory education.

In Chapter 9 Herman van de Werfhorst and his colleagues pull together the results of the previous chapters and conduct a meta-analysis of the net ethnic penalties and premia at the five stages of education investigated in previous chapters. Their central focus is on explaining the ethnic (or ‘origin’) differences that have regularly appeared at the different stages of education and the differences between the countries of destination in which the second generation are currently living. Are minorities coming from less-developed origin countries disadvantaged in Western educational systems? Does the degree of positive or negative selection of the migrant (parental) generation have a role in explaining these patterns, and do features of the destination country such as their integration policies or their educational arrangements explain which countries provide the most helpful environment for minority integration?

(p.20) The first clear-cut result is that minorities with backgrounds from less-developed countries are not disadvantaged in Western educational systems. The key reason for this surprising finding is that minorities from less-developed countries are much more likely to be positively selected. In contrast, it is the minorities from more developed countries, such as the Nordic migrants to Sweden, who are more likely to be neutrally or negatively selected.

The extent of positive or negative selection of the migrant generation thus plays a key role in understanding the educational attainments of their second-generation children. This goes a considerable way towards explaining the success of Chinese and South Asian students and to explaining the disadvantages of some of the North African and Turkish minorities. It also plays a role in explaining why Canada appears to be so successful at integrating the children of immigrants. Interestingly, there are also some indications that the level of selectivity is particularly important for test scores and for enrolment on an academic rather than a vocational track in upper secondary education. It is less important for completing upper secondary education or securing tertiary qualifications. Perhaps this is because parental influence makes less of a difference at these later stages of the educational career.

There is also robust evidence from the meta-analysis that early tracking is associated with greater ethnic disadvantage in school. Again, this is particularly evident in the case of test scores and enrolment on an academic course. This parallels other scholars' research findings about the effect of tracking on social class inequalities. The role of multicultural or other integration policies is somewhat less clear, however. On balance our evidence suggests that such policies have beneficial rather than harmful effects on minority integration, but given the small number of cases, we cannot be at all sure. The integration context does therefore matter, but we run the risk of exaggerating its importance if we do not take full account of the ways in which migrants to different countries were more or less positively selected.

Overall, the story is quite an optimistic one. To be sure, many minorities are socioeconomically disadvantaged and share the same difficulties in Western educational systems as do working-class young people from the majority group, high rates of early school-leaving being a particular concern for some minorities. And several minorities suffer major additional ethnic penalties over and above those arising from socioeconomic disadvantage, although there is no systematic pattern behind this and the ethnic penalties are of varying magnitudes. But when opportunities are available, minorities are especially likely to take advantage of them. The negative ‘primary effects’ of ethnicity found in the case of grades and test scores at the end of lower secondary education are largely mitigated by positive ‘secondary effects’ in the subsequent educational career. As a result, while some ethnic minority (p.21) children—in particular, boys—leave school early and are likely to face major difficulties in finding a job, many others end up with high and marketable qualifications.

However, as we have argued in other research, this optimistic story of minority education is followed by a much more pessimistic story when minorities enter the labour market and face major obstacles, particularly those of racial discrimination, in trying to find a job. Almost every single field experiment of discrimination that has ever been conducted in Western countries has demonstrated the unequal outcomes for ethnic minority applicants for jobs in competition with identically qualified members of the majority group (Heath et al. 2013b).


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Table A1.1. Data sources used in each chapter.

Chapter 3: Test scores

Chapter 4: Continuation after compulsory schooling

Chapter 5: Academic v vocational within upper secondary education

Chapter 6: Completion of upper secondary education

Chapter 7: Completion of tertiary education


PISA 2003


Matched observations from the Belgian Censuses of 1991 (parental education, social class, ethnicity) and 2001 (educational outcomes)


Youth in Transition Survey (cycle 2) 2000



Youth in Transition Survey (cycle 3) 2004

Diversity Ethnic Survey 2002

England and Wales

Youth Cohort Study Cohort 10 sweep 1 (2001)

Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England, wave 4(2008)

Youth Cohort Study cohort 10 sweep 2 (2001)

Youth Cohort Study cohort 10 sweep 3 (2002)

Longitudinal Study 1991–2001 Study cohort cohort 10 (linked census and vital event data of 1 % of population of England and Wales)


Linked administrative data




Panel 95 (Secondary school cohort data)

Generation 2004 survey (2007 wave)


PISA-E 2000


Mikrozensus 2005 (West Germany) (1% probability sample)



VOCL 1999 (Secondary school cohort)

Survey Integration of data Minorities (SIM) 2006


STAR database (Linked register data)


PISA-E 2000






Educational Longitudinal Study 2002

Educational Longitudinal Study 2002 Second follow up (2006)


Educational Longitudinal Study 2002 Second follow up (2006)

National Educational Longitudinal Study 1988 Fourth follow up (2000)

Note: N/A—No data have been analysed on this outcome for this country. The permission of the Office for National Statistics to use the Longitudinal Study is gratefully acknowledged. This work contains statistical data from ONS which is Crown copyright. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.


Proceedings of the British Academy, 196, 1–24. © The British Academy 2014.

(1) There are important distinctions within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the educational systems of the four territories of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In this volume our data usually cover England and Wales (which have similar educational systems) and exclude the rather different systems of Scotland and Northern Ireland. For linguistic simplicity we refer to England and Wales as a single country, although this is not strictly correct juridically. (As it happens England and Wales were the first of the four territories to be unified, when England annexed Wales in 1536.) We refer to the UK when the data cover all four territories, and to Britain when the data cover England, Wales and Scotland but exclude Northern Ireland.

(2) Every chapter in this volume was the result of a team effort, with each country expert preparing and analysing the data for their own country. The members of the team were Yaël Brinbaum, Fenella Fleischmann, Anthony Heath, Jan Jonsson, Elina Kilpi-Jakonen, Cornelia Kristen, Laurence Lessard-Phillips, Amy Lutz, Catherine Rothon, Frida Rudolphi and Herman van de Wefhorst. The members of the team then divided up the drafting of the individual chapters, as credited at the head of each chapter. We are very grateful for the additional help that we received from Nadia Granato (for Germany), Mathieu Ichou and Raya Muttarak (for England and Wales) and Georg Lorenz (for Switzerland). Erika van Elsas worked with us on the index of selectivity.

(3) EQUALSOC is a Network of Excellence, originally funded by the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme.

(4) The Integration of the European Second Generation project (TIES) should be mentioned as an important study which uses retrospective life-history data to look at the whole of the educational career in 15 European cities.