Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Choice and segregation: Why are Finnish schools and neighbourhoods falling?

Venla Bernelius - University of Helsinki, Finland

Mari Vaattovaara - University of Helsinki, Finland


Throughout the last decade Finland has been globally known as the Nordic PISA-wonder. The country has not only been among the global top in learning outcomes, but also particularly equal. The high share of excellent performers has been followed by small differences between the students; the poorest learners and schools have outperformed their reference group in all other countries.

Our article builds on two observations: Firstly, that the same pattern observed in education has been the defining feature of the Finnish society, both in cities and in schools in general. It has for long been assumed in research and policy-making that the social differences are small and if they grow, they mainly do so by the wealthy taking off, while the tail end of the society remains stable. Reflecting this, even the city planning documents from the capital, Helsinki, have contained worries about new areas becoming “too elitist”.

The second observation is that all of these observations are now being challenged. New research has shown that the learning outcomes are declining and especially the poorest learners are falling further behind. At the same time, the cities are getting more segregated – not through the rising status of the well-off areas, but a through concentrating disadvantage in some neighbourhoods.

Our interest has been to track down some of the possible mechanisms behind the observed changes in the cities and schools of Helsinki. We concentrated on the role of choice – i.e. the choices people make when moving to different neighbourhoods or the choice of school for their children – since the effects of choice has been debated in international literature. On one hand, choice has been identified as a possible mechanism for alleviating segregation, and on the other, as a mechanism for fueling further segregation.

The article is based on multiple data sets, containing statistical data and a survey on families’ location decisions, as well as data on school choices and learning outcomes. Our analysis shows that both the choice of neighbourhood and school choices have the potential to increase segregation. The effect of location decisions operates through avoiding or moving out of disadvantaged neighbourhoods. School choices also deepen the differentiation of schools. Although there are no public ranking lists of the neighbourhood schools, the student flows are directed systematically from more disadvantaged schools to the ones with higher attainment level. While the average schools are not affected by choice, the process weakens the learning results in the schools with lower initial attainment level and pushes up the attainment level in the schools with the highest level to begin with.

Based on our analysis, segregation – and the changing pattern of segregation through decline – operates at by the behavior of individual families navigating the city and its schools. Rather than alleviating differences, choice appears to act as a driver of segregation. The observation is particularly interesting for the theoretical debate on the effects of choice, as the Nordic welfare context with its strong support network and relatively low levels of ethnic and socio-economic differentiation is argued to maximally alleviate the negative effects of social processes. The observation can thus be assumed to be relatively robust through contexts of higher segregation and weaker welfare networks.  

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