How to deal with school segregation

Social disadvantage poses challenges to the Finnish schools. Schools find it difficult to face social problems caused by families’ socioeconomic disadvantage.

In recent years, awareness of segregation in urban areas has increased in Finland. Advantaged and disadvantaged parts of the population are concentrated in different residential areas, and poverty in families with children has become a permanent phenomenon. The share of children living below the relative poverty line has nearly tripled in Finland since the 1990s.

Urban segregation and the differentiation of schools affect how schools may function and, among other things, the learning outcomes they produce.

In her doctoral thesis, Heidi Huilla investigated how the school culture that come face to face with socioeconomic disadvantage supports pupils and the challenges related to this. The research dataset was composed of observations of the school cultures in three primary schools and interviews with staff, pupils and parents. 

Limited possibilities, but schools operate skilfully

In her research, Huilla found that urban schools encounter their pupils from a range of backgrounds by skilfully developing and reflecting on their practices. The social diversity of pupils and families was the premise of school operations, on the basis of which the staff established everyday practices.

“Schools had taken seriously the challenge of adapting their practices to support pupils from as many backgrounds as possible,” Huilla says. 

“My interpretation is that considering pupils’ diversity as the work’s starting point supported pupils as well as enhanced the sense of meaningfulness of work and, consequently, staff wellbeing.” 

Everyday school life appeared calm, and the schools were aware of the effects of pupils’ backgrounds on learning and behaviour. 

However, in their work schools encountered challenges associated with disadvantage of families and, for example, the stigmatisation of neighbourhoods. Despite repeatedly encountering malaise among pupils in their everyday work, school staff have limited opportunities to influence the wellbeing of children and adolescents.

“In fact, disadvantage breeds challenges in the work carried out in schools, which individual teachers or even schools find difficult to solve.”

Poverty and disadvantage are difficult topics

Schools that encounter disadvantage in their everyday lives have to strike a balance between the teaching of academic subjects and other support provided to pupils. Facing disadvantaged families in school–home collaboration adds to this challenge. 

Among other things, Huilla observed that people find it difficult to speak directly about poverty and disadvantage, and often use euphemisms to refer to socioeconomic disadvantages.
“According to my interpretation, the complex effect of limited means on the parents’ actions was not always understood with regard to families,” Huilla says. 

“The schools I studied shared an understanding that the school should strive, to the extent possible, to adapt to the needs of its pupils. I think that a more sensitive way of encountering also families could support good cooperation, thus making it easier for staff to cope with their work.” 

Based on her research, Huilla calls into question the notion according to which all schools could be developed and supported in similar ways. 

“The specific challenges of schools that face disadvantage should be acknowledged through sufficient resources. When developing schools, consideration should be given to the potential consequences of reforms for disadvantaged pupils and families,” Huilla notes. 

“From a societal perspective, it must also be said that none of the measures taken by schools are enough if urban segregation and family poverty increase excessively.”

Heidi Huilla’s doctoral thesis entitled ‘Kaupunkikoulut ja huono-osaisuus’ (‘Disadvantaged Urban Schools’) was publicly examined at the University of Helsinki on 1 April 2022. Huilla completed the doctoral thesis at the University of Helsinki’s Social Studies in Urban Education (SURE) research unit.

Heidi Huilla