Trajectories of Immigrants' Children in Secondary Education in France: Differentiation and Polarization

By Brinbaum, Yaël; Kieffer, Annick | Population, July-September 2009 | Go to article overview

Trajectories of Immigrants' Children in Secondary Education in France: Differentiation and Polarization


Brinbaum, Yaël, Kieffer, Annick, Population


Although the educational achievement of the "second-generation" children of immigrants is widely discussed in France and elsewhere in Europe, there is little detailed research on this question. Do they perform as well as the children of French-born parents? Do they have special difficulties? How do inequalities develop? Using data on a panel of students entering the first year of lower secondary school (year 6) in 1995, Yaël BRINBAUM and Annick KIEFFER analyse their entire trajectories through secondary education from year 6 to the baccalauréat school-leaving examination, considering for the first time performance at the start and end of lower secondary school (collège), tracks chosen at upper secondary school (lycée), and final qualifications gained. They clearly detail the process whereby inequalities are constructed. The article confirms a number of results that were known or suspected, but goes much further, revealing differentiation by type of baccalauréat, country of origin and sex.

Discussing the school careers of immigrants' children remains a sensitive issue, because it challenges the functioning of the educational institution, the role of parents, and more widely the egalitarian principles of French society. The policies adopted in recent decades to broaden access to education and raise levels of attainment have offered new opportunities to children from workingclass backgrounds in general, and to children of immigrants in particular. Access to the baccalauréat has been democratized, and although inequalities have been reduced, they are shifting to the choice of track at secondary and tertiary levels (Goux and Maurin, 1995; Thélot and Vallet, 2000; Duru-Bellat and Kieffer, 2000; Merle, 2002). The emergence of differentiated tracks of varying status does not abolish inequality but transforms it: children from working-class families are concentrated in lower-status tracks, usually vocational in nature (Shavit et al., 2007; Duru-Bellat et al., 2008). How do the children of immigrants use these new opportunities and to what extent do they benefit from the process of democratization? Does the choice of track depend on country of origin? What qualifications do they gain at the end of their secondary education?

These questions have been extensively researched in the United States (Portes and Zhou, 1993; Rumbaut and Portes, 2001; Thompson and Kao, 2003), but the school careers of the so-called second-generation children of immigrants have only more recently been analysed in France (Simon, 2003) and Europe (Crul and Vermeulen, 2003). "Is the foreign student not at a disadvantage compared with the student of local origin?" asked Clerc in his 1964 study. A similar question may be asked about this population of students born in France and brought up in largely working-class families marked by the experience of immigration. Belonging to a dual culture may well influence their educational careers.

Research findings tend to agree about the specific educational difficulties of immigrants' children. Their school performance is lower than that of children with French-born parents (Vallet and Caille, 1996b; OECD, 2007); they are often advised to choose lower-status tracks (Vallet, 1996; Payet, 1995). This observation is confirmed in many European countries and the United States (Alba et al., 1999). Educational achievement varies according to geographical origin, however (Gibson, 1987; Rumbaut and Portes, 2001).

Two types of explanation may be given: social and cultural. Achievement gaps may be explained by social background (Marks, 2005) and a life history in the least qualified stratum of the working class,(1) or by parents' level of education, their poorer understanding of the educational system and language barriers (Bernstein, 1971). Other potential reasons for the high achievement of certain groups, such as children of Asian origin in the United States, or the low achievement of certain minorities must also be examined (Zhou and Bankston, 1998; Thompson and Kao, 2003; Portes and Rumbaut, 2001; Heath and Brinbaum, 2007). …

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