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Low Income of Parents Should Not Stand in the Way of Their Children's Education

The plenary session of the XVII International Academic Conference ‘From the Broad Educational Opportunities Towards Social Mobility Through Education’, held on April 20, 2016, was dedicated to the ways of overcoming inequality in education.

Over the last few years Russia has significantly expanded educational opportunities offered to Russian citizens and has been consistently ranking among the top 10 countries in terms of accessibility of education at all levels. A federal programme aimed at increasing the intake in nursery schools was completed in January 2016, and almost all children 3 to 7 years of age have been given a chance to receive pre-school education. Yaroslav Kuzminov, HSE Rector, shared his hope that in the future human resources rather than oil should become the main driver of Russian economic development. To make this happen, Russian education should become an instrument of social mobility and social blending, ensuring equal starting point and equal educational opportunities for all children.

The higher the education level, the more visible the difference in achievements is between children from different income groups, and as a result, children from low income families often have dead-end career paths

A large team of researchers and analysts from HSE Institute of Education and HSE Center for Institutional Studies, Center for Education Quality Assessment under the Russian Academy of Education, Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences have been trying to find out whether or not Russian education is facing inequality issues and if so, what needs to be done to solve them. Isak Froumin, Academic Supervisor of HSE Institute of Education, shared information on the results of this research project.

Is Russian education facing any problems?

On a positive note, Isak Froumin noted that Russian education is becoming more accessible, flexible and diversified, and families can select academic programmes to best fit their needs. At the same time, privileged groups still tend to have better access to high quality education, low income can be a restraining factor and social mobility is often hampered. This is illustrated by the mere fact that almost all Top 20 Moscow secondary schools are either located in the city center or in the south-west of Moscow. This means that some densely populated Moscow districts with millions of inhabitants don't have a single secondary school offering high quality education.

But is there really a problem? Perhaps these differences in educational trajectories are quite acceptable? Researchers agree that this is indeed a problem. High level of education has a positive impact on the whole country, as it leads not only to individual income growth but also - via taxes - to public prosperity. It also gives protection against poverty, disease, and crime, as more educated people tend to be healthier and more law-abiding. The population sees education as a social imperative, which further stresses the importance of this issue in the state policy making.

A typical example illustrating the educational inequality is the State Unified Exam, taken upon completion of high school, Isak Froumin noted. The exam itself is quite fair and unbiased but if this exam is attempted by a student from one of the schools that are lagging behind, it's not that fair anymore, as this student's previous education has led to their inequality in terms of knowledge. 

Inequality from nursery school to university

The higher the education level, the more visible the difference in achievements is between children from different income groups, and as a result, children from low income families often have dead-end career paths.

At the pre-school level for children aged 3 to 7, all programmes are similar and all children are on equal terms. But even at this level two factors may cause inequality: children from low income families do not have access to paid continuing education, whereas some kids get a head start over others, as they have a tutor when they are less than 3 years old.

Secondary school is where targeted selection takes place, when some children in their 7-8th grade are told that they had better go to vocation school, since they are not likely to pass the USE

The key problem of Russian education is the gap between academic achievements of children from different secondary schools.

In elementary school everyone should be given equal opportunities, however it is at this level that unofficial segregation of children occurs, and children from families with cultural capital often enroll in higher level programmes. The difference between the schools also becomes quite vivid at the elementary stage, as one-third to a quarter of all Russian schools steadily demonstrate low performance.

Secondary school is where targeted selection takes place, when some children in their 7-8th grade are told that they had better go to vocation school, since they are not likely to pass the USE. As a result, the share of 9th grade students, who pursue vocational education is growing, today it is about 40% of all children aged 15-16. Children from low income families generally enter trade schools, thereby cutting their way up the career ladder. In families with income above 20 thousand roubles per person, 50% of children are planning to enter university, whereas in families with per capita income of up to 10 thousand roubles only 20% of children plan to do so.

‘During one of the research projects, we were struck by the conclusion that after the 9th grade children with roughly the same academic results, but from different families, are choosing different trajectories,’ - Isak Froumin pointed out. ‘If family members are more educated, children tend to continue their education and if they are less educated, children tend to leave school. There are counterexamples, but this is a general rule’.

When at the high school level field-specific training and competition for admission to the most prestigious universities begins, children from top secondary schools, who have tutors, have a competitive advantage. Back in 2012, a study of the interrelation between the USE results and household income showed a positive correlation. On top of that, although officially all high school graduates have equal opportunities to enter any higher education institution, the differentiation between the universities is too high, and the higher the household income, the more prestigious is the university the child gets enrolled in, and leading universities in Russia are financed better than other institutions.

What can be done?

What principles can we build on to promote equality in education?

We do not propose to go back to the Soviet system based on standardisation and one-size-fits-all approach, Isak Froumin emphasized, as this is impossible and would be wrong. But we should seriously think about giving each child an opportunity to get education which will bring them to a higher social level,  for example, prevent privileged groups from using their status during the informal selection in schools. We need to find out why 10th grade students choose not to to continue their education at school, though their academic performance is not worse than that of their peers. Is it their rational choice, or do they simply believe that they won’t be able to succeed? Finally, there are families hardly living  above the subsistence level, who, in the researchers’ opinion, are in need of targeted support programmes. Giving the children from such families a chance to change  their social status is a crucial imperative for the society.  

In a healthy economy every person should not strive to get higher education by all means, otherwise it loses its value

Most initiatives tackling the issues of inequality in education have been suggested by the country's political leadership. There hasn’t been much research on this subject, and longitudinal studies, which track the trajectories of individuals from nursery school to the stage of building their career still don’t have a long history. HSE has launched a joint programme with the Russian Ministry of Education and Science aimed at providing support to schools working in difficult conditions. However there are a number of schools, which have appeared recently and work in similar conditions, but still manage to show good results without any special government support. These schools are resistant to external negative factors, and their experience is worth adopting.

Yaroslav Kuzminov noted that Russian families also need support in order to fully benefit from available opportunities in higher education. For example, student loan programme offered at an interest rate of 7%, which is extremely affordable, is in place only in few Russian universities, as perspective students don’t fully understand this programme’s benefits.


In defense of trade schools

During the discussion that followed the presentation some participants noted that there is nothing wrong with choosing vocational education after graduation from the 9th grade.

Efim Rachevsky, the Director of the Tsaritsyno Educational Centre No. 548, pointed out that in 2011 eleven students from his school went to trade school after the 9th grade, and this year there are 47 of them, including kids with quite high academic results. These children want to get a profession and earn money first, and enter the university afterwards.    

Aleksander Povalko, Deputy Minister of Education and Science of the Russian Federation, agreed that low income of parents should not prevent their children from getting access to education but noted that in a healthy economy every person should not strive to get higher education by all means, otherwise it loses its value.

Michael Feuer, the President of the National Academy of Education, USA, noted that the issue of inequality in the US education is even more pressing than in Russia, and residential segregation is also a major problem, and in Russia it would be feasible to take preventive measures now rather than deal with these issues later. Policy makers in education should have more independence to conduct their experiments in social and educational policy, Michael Feuer believes.

Christian Aedo, the Head of Directorate for Education of the World Bank in Europe and Central Asia, added that the core of the problem is not so much in the equality, but in the risk that a group of people who failed to get adequate education will emerge and these people will be inefficient in the new economic environment. Therefore, the inequality problem is a matter of economic efficiency rather than a value-related philosophical question.

Yaroslav Kuzminov noted that in the recent 15 years trade schools in Europe have been transformed into universities of applied sciences, and Russian scholars should explore these practices. Today we are facing the era of massive applied undergraduate education, and we need to understand to what extent the rebranding of trade schools into universities can improve the prestige of the applied education. A graduate of such applied university could have better communication skills, could become more ambitious and more willing to pursue a professional career. We should look deeper into how successful this trade school-university transformation has been in Europe.


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