Dissertation Abstracts

Right On Track? An Explorative Study of Ethnic Minorities' Success in Flemish Secondary Education

Author: Van Praag, Lore , Lore.VanPraag@Ugent.be
Department: Sociology
University: Ghent University, Belgium
Supervisor: Mieke Van Houtte and Peter A.J. Stevens (co-promotor)
Year of completion: 2013
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: secondary education , Flanders , ethnography
Areas of Research: Education , Migration , Racism, Nationalism and Ethnic Relations


In this dissertation, the relationship between ethnicity and education is explored by focusing on the factors that are related to the success of ethnic minority youth in secondary education in Flanders. The findings of this study suggest that the specific organisation of tracks and fields of study in the Flemish educational system play a central role in students’ and teachers’ definitions of success in secondary education in Flanders. Moreover, students’ track choices seem to be crucial for their educational career and future chances on the labour market. Therefore, this study explores immigrant-specific factors that are associated with these track choices and that could contribute to the exploration of ethnic differences in educational outcomes. Combining ethnographic observations and semi-structured interviews has led to innovative insights into structural features of the educational system and students’ responses to such structures. Focusing on this interplay between structures and students' responses appears to be especially fruitful as students and teachers’ seem to adapt their definitions of success to the existing structures of the educational system. Furthermore, applying such an exploratory approach helps to identify some unintended consequences of the tracking systems that contribute to prevailing ethnic and social inequalities, which are often not discussed in debates concerning the structures of tracking systems. Moreover, some of these consequences, such as the grouping of students in homogeneous tracks in terms of abilities and knowledge, seem to contradict with initial tracking objectives. For instance, while tracking systems are implemented in order to enhance professional specialisation in vocational tracks, the cascade-like structure of the educational system seems to hinder such specialisation considerably. Another side-effect of the grouping of students into tracks in Flanders is the unequal distribution of students of different ethnic/social groups across tracks. Many tracks and fields of study are characterised by a particular ethnic or socioeconomic composition. Context characteristics, such as the ethnic and socioeconomic composition of a track and future perspectives of these tracks, appear to matter for the development of interethnic relations. The existing social climate and interethnic tensions in the classroom seem to be associated with students’ sense of belonging to this class group. Feelings of belonging have to be considered because they seem to influence students' educational choices. However, additional factors, such as students’ frames of references and their ability to find comparable peers within their immediate environment, contribute to these educational decision-making processes as well. Furthermore, students appear to have specified or adapted their educational choices to the future goals they developed, in the beginning and over the course of their school career. While many of these processes may be similar for students of Belgian and immigrant descent, it seems that students of immigrant descent more frequently perceive future limitations and troubles, which, in turn, inform their future goals. This might be due to immigrant-specific factors, such as treatment by the dominant society or a lack of information about the educational system or lack of supportive networks.

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