24 May 2023

In recent years, municipalities have sometimes closed schools dominated by students of immigrant background, in an effort to counter segregation. But according to new computer simulations carried out by researchers at Linköping University, this method seldom gives the desired result. The exception would be if you closed large schools dominated by children with Swedish background.

A man and a woman facing the camera.
Eduardo Tapia and Selcan Mutgan have analysed the effects of school closures. Jonas Roslund

“This is the first paper to tackle this problem, the first evaluation of this kind of policy. It challenges the common sense of policy makers when they implement these kinds of interventions,” says Eduardo Tapia, associate professor at the Department of Management and Engineering at Linköping University.

Malmö, Trollhättan, Stockholm, Linköping. Recurring news reports on municipalities closing down schools in an attempt to reduce segregation made researchers Selcan Mutgan and Eduardo Tapia at Linköping University think. Was there actually scientific support for assuming that school closures would have the effect desired by policy makers?

Simulating school closures

To investigate this, they simulated the closure of each of the 249 primary and lower secondary schools in Stockholm in 2017. How would the closure of each school impact the student composition in the remaining schools? Would this reduce segregation in the city?
In their simulations, the researchers chose to consider:

  • The size and student composition of the school to be closed down.
  • How students were then allocated to other schools following a closure.
  • Student composition in nearby schools.

To determine student composition, all students in Stockholm’s primary and lower secondary schools were divided into two groups; those with at least one Swedish-born parent (a majority) and those with two parents born abroad (a minority). This provided a measurement of the segregation in each school.

In the simulations, the students were allocated to schools within a two-kilometre radius of the school that was closed down. This was done because the main principle in Sweden is free choice of school, and data shows that students and parents prefer a school close to where they live, with students that are similar to themselves. Those who do not make an active choice are placed at their nearest municipal school.

Segregation was not reduced

How a school closure affects segregation therefore depends on the student composition in nearby schools.

The result of the simulation shows that most often segregation was not reduced, and in some scenarios even increased.

Only in one scenario was the objective reached: the closure of a large school dominated by students from the majority population.

A man and a woman in conversation.Eduardo Tapia och Selcan Mutgan want to continue investigating school closures. Photo credit Jonas Roslund “And that’s not going to happen. If a school is functioning it’s not easy to motivate ,” says Selcan Mutgan, postdoc at the Department of Management and Engineering.

The catch is that there is a link between segregation in schools and housing segregation. If students and parents cannot choose a nearby school with a different student composition, the segregation problem will likely remain.

As a comparison, the researchers also looked at what would happen if students were instead randomly allocated to schools across the municipality. This turned out to be a somewhat better method for reducing segregation.

But Selcan Mutgan and Eduardo Tapia point out that their computer simulation provides only a snapshot. It does not say anything about the effects of a school closure over time, e.g. whether randomly allocated students stay at their new school or majority students choose to change schools as more minority students arrive. They are therefore planning to carry out more, extended simulations.

Their study is published in the Journal of Urban Affairs. Their research was funded by the Swedish Research Council and the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare.

Article: Can school closures decrease ethnic school segregation?: Evidence from primary and lower secondary schools in Stockholm, Sweden, Selcan Mutgan, Eduardo Tapia, Journal of Urban Affairs, published online in March 2023, doi: 10.1080/07352166.2023.2177549

Translated by Anneli Mosell


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