Module 4 - What are the consequences of school segregation?

School Segregation takes different forms in different contexts (Module 2) and it is caused by different factors (Module 3). However, the different expressions of school segregation have in common that they all have a negative impact on social and educational opportunities, as well as on social cohesion, both in the short and the long term. In this module, we illustrate the negative consequences of school segregation, which help to understand the need to tackle this problem in European cities. Which are these effects? Are they only present in the educational field? Does segregation affect students from different social origins equally?

Objectives of the module: This module aims to provide information and discussions on the wide range of consequences resulting from school segregation. In particular, the module objectives are:

  • To approach to multifaceted adverse effects of school segregation
  • To reflect on the relationship between school segregation, social inequality and social cohesion
  • To examine the educational impact of school segregation

Outline of the module: This module is structured in 2 units. Each of them responds to the impact of school segregation on specific fields.

Unit 4.1. School segregation and inequality of educational opportunities approaches the ways in which school composition impinges on students’ opportunities. It deals with direct and indirect mechanisms through which school segregation reduces children’s educational opportunities. In addition, the unit focuses on the negative effects of segregation on the performance of the most disadvantaged students, as well as the performance of the overall education system.

Unit 4.2. School segregation and social costs examines the social impacts beyond the school system. We show the many societal effects of school segregation, such as increasing racism, social exclusion or economic drawback. This unit presents empirical evidence that illustrates the adverse social consequences of school segregation.



This unit provides the rationale and evidence regarding three main consequences of school segregation on education inequalities. First, we discuss the dynamics of peer effects and the impact of classroom composition on students’ learning experience. Second, we present evidence about the indirect impact of school composition on school organizational and pedagogical dynamics. Stigmatization, school culture, or school climate are some of the processes affected by school segregation. Third, we focus on the impact of school composition on academic performance, particularly of those students from a most vulnerable background.

The unit tries to respond to the following questions:

  • Does school segregation reduce educational opportunities?
  • How does school segregation affect school organizational and pedagogical dynamics?
  • Does school segregation have an impact on academic performance?

There is a large body of literature focusing on how school composition is an important determinant of individuals’ behaviour. Peer effect has been identified as the process through which peers’ backgrounds might influence their classmates’ individual choices and learninng outcomes.
It can be understood as an externality that spills over from peers’ family background, and lets students benefit from their classmates’ characteristics.
Peer effect has been studied paying attention to students’ characteristics such as sex, income and migratory background, among other variables.
Are academic results affected by the percentage of girls attending a class? Do school expectations diverge according to the percentage of high-income students in the group?

Know more about this topic

Sacerdote, Bruce (2011) “Peer Effects in Education: How Might They Work, How Big Are They and How Much Do We Know Thus Far?” in Handbook of the Economics of Education (vol 3), edited by Hanushek, Machin & Woessmann

Does students’ behaviour improve depending on classmates’ migratory background?
Looking at the management of school diversity in the same classroom, Dronkers & Avram  2010 summarize some of the positive processes that the literature has attributed to this school diversity: good students can help their weaker peers (both through the provision of help and their acting as examples), students with greater difficulties enjoy a better curriculum (since teachers prepare it for the highest performing students) and, finally, best students deepen their learning thanks to their dedication to the lowest level students.
In this regard, research on the impact of different methods of grouping learners concludes that the impact of heterogeneity in the classroom is not distributed equally among different groups of students. While it has a clear positive effect on the performance of those with greater difficulties, it barely affects the most gifted ones, whose performance is more affected by the average attainment level of the class than by its heterogeneity (Durpiez, 2010). Other research (Contini, 2013) has also pointed out how contact with classmates of other origins make students familiar to new behaviours, expectations and motivation, which are clearly related to family background. In this sense, students from low-income families can benefit from attributes of their peers from higher income families that are most valued within the school system.

However, these benefits cannot occur in a context of school segregation. School segregation implies the homogenization of school composition, limiting diversity among classmates and reducing the interaction of pupils to peers with a similar background.
In this segregated scenario, peer’s contact will be expected to have a minor impact on students’ learning experience. The homogenization of students’ profiles limits the chances of contact among peers from different origins and the possibilities of gaining from the different attitudes and expectations that can take place in more diverse classrooms.


School composition also impacts on school quality. Research on all the factors within schools that affect learning outcomes (Educational Effectiveness Research, EER) has traditionally focused on studying organizational and pedagogical dynamics within schools.
However, EER has recently incorporated social composition into the analysis of the school process. These studies are based on the idea that a group made up of families with a higher educational level generates school dynamics that foster greater academic development and results in higher teacher expectations of students’ learning process.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Jean Anyon (1980: 90) asserted the need to delve into «apparent connections between everyday activity in schools and classrooms and the unequal structure of economic relationships in which we work and live».
Since then, research has proven the existence of a better learning climate associated to students’ high social status, greater support from families and fewer disciplinary problems.
It has also been observed that there is a less demanding curriculum in low-achieving groups, where minorities and low social class students are often overrepresented.

Moreover, less qualified teachers are frequently allocated to lower-level groups, and is has been proven difficult to recruit and retain teachers to work in schools with higher proportions of vulnerable children, thus producing a vicious circle on their performance.

There is a large amount of literature about the adaptation of teachers’ expectation to the social composition of the classroom. Several studies have identified lower expectations among teachers when referring to minority students or those from a low-income background.
These expectations clearly have a negative impact on most disadvantaged students, who build their own educational expectations as a projection of their teachers’ beliefs.
According to the self-fulfilling prophecy (Pygmalion effect), students might try to accomplish what teachers expect from them, so if these expectations are low, so will be the students’ performance.

In a segregated scenario, ideas and expectations that teachers have for each child in the classroom (which are clearly related to his/her family background) are similar as far as students’ backgrounds are not diverse.
These low expectations for the whole group may involve lower quality school dynamics, and a less demanding learning process. In short, research has shown the existence of mutual interactions between school composition and variables related to pedagogic practices and organizational processes.

School segregation also implies the degradation of the school system, for it increases differences in schools’ quality, and it limits possibilities for improvement in several ways.
First, schools with more privileged social compositions tend to charge high fees or have extra costs, which are translated into more school supplies and better complementary services.
Second, complementary learning experiences during school time such as excursions or wider curricular offer (such as foreign languages, music, sports…) usually depend on families’ economic conditions, so they are offered less frequently in schools with a high proportion of low-income families.
Third, family participation, the strength of family ties and their support to school organization vary according to social class.
Fourth, research has consistently shown that teacher quality is distributed very unevenly. Wherever teacher allocation depends on teachers’ preferences, teachers tend to choose schools from upper social classes and try to avoid more marginalized schools.
Finally, these differences are often translated into desired and not-desired schools, which conditions families’ choices and causes significant differences in school quality.


We have shown that school segregation shapes student results because of school composition effects.
Likewise, the relationship between schools’ social composition and the learning atmosphere certainly impinges directly on students’ academic performance.

As it has been well documented, student performance tends to be better in schools with higher proportions of students of high socioeconomic status, have more students who are girls or have a higher proportion of native students. Moreover, it has already been proven that student performance is more strongly linked to the socioeconomic status than to the proportions of girls or migrant students.

Know more about this topic


Benito, Alegre & Gonzàlez (2014) School Segregation and Its Effects on Educational Equality and Efficiency in 16 OECD Comprehensive School Systems
Author(s): Ricard Benito, Miquel Àngel Alegre and Isaac Gonzàlez-Balletbò
Source: Comparative Education Review, Vol. 58 (1): 104-134

Benito et al (2014), through a simulation exercise, show how different academic results (using PISA data) would be in each country by comparing a segregated and a non-segregated scenario.
As we can see in this graph, in non-segregated systems, differences among students are lower than in segregated scenarios.

It is noteworthy that neither the schools’ social composition nor their pedagogical dynamics have the same impact on all students. Coleman et al. (1966) had already stated in the sixties that most socially disadvantaged students were the ones benefiting most from attending socially diverse schools.
More recent studies (Duru-Bellat et al 2004; Dronkers & Avram  2010 seem to agree on the identification of certain students’ profiles who are more sensitive to the effects associated to attending one type of school or another. Students from families with a lower socioeconomic status increase their expectations of academic success when they move from schools with a socially disadvantaged composition to schools with a higher social composition. Likewise, migrant students increase school expectations and performance when attending a more diverse school.
In summary, the performance of the underprivileged students is more sensitive to changes in the characteristics of the school’s composition.

Focusing on migrant students, the social capital derived from intercultural contact depends not only on the existence of this contact, but also on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions of its members, both migrants and natives. Therefore, it is foreseeable that if, due to social segregation, contact occurs with natives with a lower socioeconomic background, the academic results of foreign students will not be greatly improved. In short, the intercultural network is a space for relationships and contagion, but for this to exist it is necessary that it this network is made up of individuals with different resources.
Research also finds that migrant students are more deeply affected by schools’ ethnic concentration than native students are.

Know more about this topic

Portes, A., & Zhou, M. (1993). The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and Its Variants.
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 530, 74–96.

Source: Ferrer, F. (dir) (2011) PISA 2009: avaluació de les desigualtats educatives a Catalunya. Barcelona, Fundació Jaume Bofill.

Source: Ferrer, F. (dir) (2011) PISA 2009: avaluació de les desigualtats educatives a Catalunya. Barcelona, Fundació Jaume Bofill.

In addition, the effects of school socioeconomic composition differ depending on the features of school systems. For example, these effects are less intense in more comprehensive systems in comparison to those where early tracking applies.
In other words, school socioeconomic composition has larger effects in contexts where students are assigned to different school itineraries according to their achievement at early ages.



In this Unit, we deal with the social impacts of school segregation beyond the school system. This unit presents the theoretical debates and empirical evidence that point to negative social impacts of school segregation.

We address the following questions:

  • Does school segregation have effects beyond the educational field?
  • How is school segregation putting social cohesion at risk?



Segregation poses barriers to social cohesion and integration through several processes.
As seen in Unit 1, school segregation challenges the conception of education as an equal opportunities mechanism and as an instrument for boosting social mobility of the most disadvantaged students.
Moreover, school segregation implies lack of contact among children coming from different social and cultural backgrounds.
Several studies have analysed the establishment of inter-ethnic networks in the educational context and their effects of processes of inclusion or exclusion of minority students.

Conclusions are not always coincident, but most educational research agrees/points out that intercultural contact reduces negative stereotypes and moderates the force of inter-ethnic prejudices if it happens in equal status and in a non-competitive context.
There is also evidence to affirm that contact theory works better in small groups, such as classrooms. In small spaces, direct interpersonal contact is frequent and regular, while in large-scale contexts, as neighbourhoods, where inter-group contact is superficial, contact theory does not predict actual contact, and discrimination may not decrease.

Know more about this topic

Allport, G. (1954). The nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Theorists of relational capital consider that what colleagues or friends do, say and think has an essential influence on the configuration of what each student does, says and even thinks.
However, for this influence to happen it is not enough that children coexist in a specific context. It is also necessary that they mutually identify as friends, since it requires the assignment of meaning to the other.
Consequently, school segregation restricts the possibilities of creating friendship networks among students from different background and, in turn, hinders social cohesion.

School segregation also limits children’s preparedness for the multicultural world in which they live. This is especially relevant for members of the “majority group”.
As a result of intercultural contact, students from the majority group are predicted to discriminate less, compared to those other students with not minority peers.
In case of students from minority groups, less differences are observed, because their exposure to majority members is more frequent.



There are many studies that have addressed the serious economic damages associated to residential or school segregation. The lost income associated to all sorts of inequalities, including educational inequalities, is considered to be enormous.
For the city of Chicago, for example, a study of the Metropolitan Planning Council made estimations of foregone earnings associated to residential segregation that might reach almost 3.000US$ per person/year or 4.4 billion US$ for the whole region.
Economic inequality and segregation interact and reinforce each other, causing a terrible economic damage.

Likewise, school segregation and education inequalities have severe effects in terms of economic costs. School segregation may produce income losses through several mechanisms.
First, since school segregation lowers academic performance of the whole education system and there is a relationship between performance and economic returns, a segregated school system can produce highly significant earning losses.
Using inequalities in PISA results, the Public Education Foundation in Australia estimated losses of $120 billion per year associated to the fall of performance between 2009 and 2015, of which $20 billion could be attributable to inequality.
Second, reducing school segregation can lead to a positive economic balance in public spending per student accounting for public savings in areas such as health, security or welfare, and the gain derived from labour inclusion.
Some studies have highlighted the association between school re-segregation processes and increased juvenile justice cases of students from ghettoized schools (Billings et al., 2014), or the reduction of crime among students who attended in schools with low levels of poverty concentration and ethnic minorities (Johnson, 2011). These studies show that the economic and social cost of segregation can be very high, and that ethnic and social integration in schools can have obvious benefits from the point of view of economic efficiency.

Reducing socioeconomic segregation in our schools by half would produce a return on investment of three to five times the cost of the programs.
Since segregation generates higher levels of school failure, it imposes additional costs on public budgets (on health, security or compensatory programs).
There are indubitable benefits from investing in all education levels, which always outweigh the costs (OECD, 2020). Therefore, reducing school segregation generates clear positive returns to public investment in mid and the long term.

All the aspects reviewed in this unit underline why it is so important that public authorities undertake action to tackle school segregation.
School segregation generates dramatic effects both in terms of equity and efficiency, but on many occasions public governments do not take action, as they don’t feel directly confronted by some of these consequences in the short term. In the last unit we explore a range of possible policies that governments can develop to reduce school segregation and build more cohesive and inclusive education systems and societies.