The independent primary and lower secondary schools and social responsibility v. 2019
The people who listened carefully to what the supernova Jacob Mark from the Socialist People's Party said in the Danish election campaign might not be surprised about what is happening, because he talked persistently and warmly about social taximeter systems. The certainty grew with the government's paper known as “the agreement paper” (“forståelsespapir” – a government platform) which said that education and schools must reflect society's social composition, and predicted a social taximeter system at the independent schools. The Minister for Education Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil removed all doubt with her school-start letter for the independent schools in which it said in writing: The government is examining the possibility of introducing a social taximeter system in connection with the subventions for the independent schools. And if you still do not think that the wolf is coming, you can read skoleliv.dk's interview with the Minister for Education in which she makes her political project perfectly clear: The government wants a social taximeter system that forces the independent schools to take social responsibility.
“The sorting mechanism that lets you accept or reject pupils and in that way avoid taking social responsibility is simply no good”, says the minister in the interview with skoleliv.dk.
A new political reality
Up until the next election (and possibly before the National Budget negotiations in 2020), the government and the Socialist People's Party will do everything they can to force the independent schools to take more social responsibility. It is a declared goal. And the means is a social taximeter system. The question is no longer whether or not it will happen. The question is: When and how?
The criticism has raged for a long time
The discussion about the independent schools’ social responsibility is not new. For the past 10-15 years, politicians – especially from the Social Democratic Party and Socialist People's Party – have criticised the school type. The independent schools have been rewarded handsomely. The independent schools are skimming the cream and leave the resource-demanding pupils to the municipal primary and lower secondary school (Folkeskolen). The independent schools sort the pupils at the door. The independent schools are shelters for the children of rich and well-educated parents who do not want their children to go to school with pupils who are not like them. The independent schools’ state subventions place the municipal primary and lower secondary schools in a really unfair competitive position. The independent schools make it impossible to close down small schools and improve the municipal school system. The independent schools opt out of the large community and ruin the social cohesion. And so forth.
Rethinking social responsibility
The criticism of the independent primary and lower secondary schools has been extensive and multi-directional. However, with Jacob Mark as the inventor, the Social Democratic (S) government now has a clear political agenda for the independent schools. It is now clear what the parties mean when they say social responsibility. And it is clear how they want to achieve it.
Social responsibility means that the individual school must reflect the demography as much as possible. Today, wherever you see quotes from Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil and Jacob Mark, they give the same answer: The individual school must reflect society’s social composition.
The two parties are also in unison on the reason: The individual school must be similar to society, because it strengthens the social cohesion that we meet each other across class barriers. It counteracts creation of echo champers and ghettos. Jacob Mark, among other people, adds: Mixed schools ensure the classmate effect and strengthen learning.
Unequal children learn best
The classmate effect is one of the oldest and most discussed classics in school research. Research says that the pupils learn the most when they are placed in socially mixed classes.
The effect is real. The question is how big it is. New studies suggest that the weak pupils are taken to a higher vocational level when they are in the same class as cleverer (and socioeconomically stronger) classmates. Research cannot identify any effect – neither positive nor negative – on the clever pupils, but the pupils from socioeconomically weak homes become cleverer, and in that way the total score of the class is increased. And vice versa: Social segregation in schools has a negative influence on the effect of teaching.
Money must have an impact on behaviour
So, the new government’s requirement for the independent primary and lower secondary schools is very clear: You must look like the surrounding society. And the requirement is also more specific than earlier: It is not enough that the sector as a whole has a nice profile – the individual school must be a miniature of society.
The government and its supporters are also clearer as to how they want to reach their goal: By adjusting the state subventions and thus the schools’ financial standings.
Nobody knows exactly how this will be implemented yet. Jacob Mark has suggested that a working group is formed, which – with the help of experts – can investigate the area and come up with suggestions.
However, even if the model is not finished, the thinking behind the messages from the government and the supporting party is clear: The schools with a socioeconomic index above the average must hand over money to the schools with at weaker socioeconomic average.
Whether the socioeconomic average is local or national, nobody knows. Neither is it clear whether the schools who perform a large social task must be punished financially because their socioeconomic index is below the average, which makes them seem like some sort of ghetto school.
It is just as unclear how the parties envisage how the socially sensitive subventions should in fact affect the behaviour of the schools. If the combination of pupils is to be changed, the schools must admit more of one type of pupils and less of another type. But how is this going to take place in practice? Should the pupils who apply for the school provide documentation that substantiates the family's position on the social scale? That is not a very nice thought. And should position on the social scale be more important than the schools’ waiting lists?
The union is in
The chairman of the Teachers' Union for Danish Independent Schools (Frie Skolers Lærerforening) Uffe Rostrup is willing to look at the subventions for independent primary and lower secondary schools:
“The existing subvention system has not been changed for many years, so it is reasonable to place it under scrutiny”, he says.
And it is possible that other criteria for distribution than the existing ones should and must be incorporated, says Uffe Rostrup:
“Maybe school size should not be the only variable. Well, maybe it should not matter at all. Maybe the subventions should be based on other and more social criteria”, he says.
The municipalities cannot decide
However, Uffe Rostrup continues, there are also some clear limits to how you can affect the schools’ social profile. The requirement for social responsibility must not affect the schools’ freedom to follow their own values:
“It is crucial for us that the schools’ freedom to choose their pupils remains unchanged. Because it makes no sense to have value-based schools if the schools and the parents do not mutually choose each other”, he says.
And for that reason, he refuses point blank the idea which some politicians from the Social Democratic Party have suggested: That the municipalities must have the right to assign a certain amount of the places at the independent schools. That will not work, Uffe Rostrup thinks:
“You cannot force families into a value-based independent school. That will ruin the entire thinking behind the independent schools. They must be chosen actively”.
Tripwire can be found
In addition, Uffe Rostrup points out that there are many pitfalls in the discussion about social responsibility. For instance, he does not necessarily agree with the definition of social responsibility that is developing:
“To me, social responsibility does not necessarily mean that the school reflects the average population. To me, it is crucial that the families who want their children to attend an independent school are not excluded for financial reasons. So, it is all about free-place solutions and socially responsible payment schemes. In addition, social responsibility is also about giving the teachers real possibilities to perform the task of bringing all the pupils to a higher level”, says Uffe Rostrup.
At the same time, he thinks that it can be very difficult for the independent schools to live up to the social responsibility criterion for which, among other people, Jacob Mark beats the drums:
“I think that it will be difficult for a number of independent schools to get a socioeconomic profile that matches the average profile. And maybe it will be hardest for the schools which take the idea of the independent schools most seriously and work according to clear alternative core values. Take for instance the Freinet Schools. The Montesorri Schools. Or take some of the very creative/music-oriented schools or small educational reform schools (lilleskoler). I find it hard to believe that their parent composition is similar to the average population. But that does not mean that they do not take social responsibility. And I don’t think that the schools that take our educational freedom seriously should be punished for being more appealing to some groups than to others”, says Uffe Rostrup.
However, he does repeat that he and the union are ready to look at the subvention system and at the social responsibility of the schools:
“We will of course discuss the issues openly. Even if the discussions will be difficult”, he says.
Independent Schools (Frie Skoler) has repeatedly tried to get a comment from the Minister for Education Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil, but she did not wish to be interviewed.
About social responsibility and the independent schools
Children with a diagnosis
Nothing suggests that the independent primary and lower secondary schools avoid admitting resource-demanding children. A study from the Danish Disability Counsel and VIVE shows that 15 percent of the pupils in the independent schools have a diagnosis, whereas 14 percent of the pupils in the municipal primary and lower secondary schools (Folkeskolen) have a diagnosis.
The critics think that the children of the well-educated upper class bunch together in the independent schools and isolate themselves from other social groups. But the numbers tell a different story. Numbers from Statistics Denmark and the Economic Council of the Labour Movement show that 29 percent of the municipal primary and lower secondary schools have a social mix, whereas 24 percent of the independent schools have a social mix. In the study, all the pupils are divided into five groups of equal size according to their parents’ incomes. A school is defined as mixed if there are between 10 and 30 percent of the school’s pupils in each of the five income groups.
Socio economy, pupils and school attendance
For more than 40 years, the education statistics have shown that there is a strong statistical connection between a number of background variables (the educational level of the parents, income and employment rate) and the pupils’ performance in the school and educational system (grades at the final examination, whether or not the pupil gets special needs education, whether or not the pupil will attend further/higher education, etc.).
The socioeconomic indicators do not say anything about the individual pupil. But they do say something about the probability that pupils with a certain socioeconomic profile will do well at school, that they will get a high annual income, that they will attend further/higher education, and so forth. A school’s socioeconomic average can also show how resource-demanding or easy the group of pupils at the school is.
If you combine the socioeconomic average with the grades the pupils actually get, for instance at the final examination, you get a picture of the school's ability to bring the pupils to a higher level: The school’s ability to make the pupils cleverer than you would expect from their socioeconomic background.
The socioeconomic average verifies that the social inheritance does in fact exist, and that many of the challenges in the school are heavy.