Picture: Nanne Meulendijks

Black school label is stigma

White schools. Black schools. The Netherlands is the only country in Europe that uses these terms. How bad is that name?

The first time Hülya Kosar-Altinyelken heard about black schools must have been 22 years ago, when she came here from Turkey. This is a joke, she thought. The assistant professor of education and pedagogy at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) made a phone call to fellow scientists in Denmark, Spain, Italy, France, Norway, Slovenia: “Do you use those terms for schools where more than 50 percent of the students have a migration background? ?” No, they all said, one by one, no, no, certainly not. “Some even find the labels outrageous,” says Kosar-Altinyelken. “It's also bizarre. They are terms that have a negative connotation: black is bad, impure, dark, obscure. White is clean, clean, pure, beautiful.”

In addition, she knows from her own experience and conversations with students: “People with a Moroccan, Turkish or Iranian background would not identify themselves as black. But we do use that term for all children with a non-Western background. Asian students, Syrian, children from Malaysia, Turkey, Morocco: we lump all children together. How many students have I spoken to who say they don't like the term 'black school'? Like they don't belong. It can lead to resentment, alienation among minority groups.”

This article is from the June Education Magazine. Do you want to stay informed of everything that is going on in education? Join the AOb and receive the Education magazine every month.

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In the hope of counteracting further polarization in Dutch education and society, she and colleagues wrote an open letter in 2016 to de Volkskrant† Headline and message: Stop using the term 'white' and 'black' school. Seventeen UvA scientists signed the document.


Anja Vink, an educational journalist, states that since 2001, the year marked by the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, we have become “completely obsessed” with ethnicity and religion. "Because we focus so much on that, on that skin color, on the origin of children, we don't see a very large part."

She researched the two color labels we assign to schools and that resulted in the book twelve years ago White swans, black swans: the myth of the black school. Her conclusion: The terms 'white school' and 'black school' hide what we're really talking about: “It's about schools for the poor. Schools with students from families that are struggling financially, with all the consequences that entails. That's actually what we're talking about, but we don't call that animal by its name.'

It's not about the skin color of those students, says Vink. “There are not only schools with children from poor, non-Western families. There are also schools with poor white children, from white, low-educated families where there are many problems at home and the language deficit is just as great. And I also visited schools with predominantly black students, excellent teachers, very strong education and excellent results.”

Racial segregation

The term 'black school' probably came over from the United States and South Africa. Both countries had racial segregation in education and also used the term "black school." Vink also found these terms in the Dutch newspaper archives, in an article from 1971 (“more than fifty years ago, huh!”), when the Amsterdam Bijlmer was founded and the first houses and schools had been built there.

The term 'black school' has come over from the US and South Africa

The schools had to deal with a significant increase in children from Suriname, white parents quickly took their children out of school. Apartheid in the Bijlmer, headline Het Parool† According to Vink, it was one of the very first articles written about Dutch educational segregation. The word 'black school' was not yet literally in it, but it soon became commonplace in the press, in political debates and also in popular speech.
“It's an easy word,” says Vink. “It tastes good. Policymakers, education experts, teachers, activists have tried a hundred times to turn it into colorful school, rainbow school, or concentration school. We're not getting rid of it. Not of that segregation, nor of the terms.”

Kosar-Altinyelken calls it a self-fulfilling prophecy: as long as we continue to call a school 'black', it will never break free from the stigma attached to the term. “If a school is labeled 'black', with all the negative connotations that come with it, teachers and students can have lower expectations, which in turn can lead to lower results in the end.”
As a result, parents choose not to send their child to a black school. “You can't blame them for that,” says Eddie Denessen, professor at Leiden University, who specializes in socio-cultural backgrounds in education. “Parents may want to send their child to a black school, but don't dare. You're not experimenting with your child, so you're on the safe side. Nobody wants to be a minority.”

Denessen doubts whether the name of a school can change that. “The terms are strange, and also politically incorrect, but it is ultimately a matter of reputation a school has at any given time. And parents know what kind of schools there are in the neighbourhood, what kind of students go there, regardless of what you call the school. Once a school is known for something, be it good or bad, it is very difficult to attract other students.”

Free choice of school

“We have to fight the real phenomena,” says Hans Luyten, educational scientist at the University of Twente. “And then more has to be done than just changing the terms. It also didn't work to call deprived neighborhoods in the big cities Vogelaar neighborhoods or power districts. Changing a reputation is usually very difficult.”

'We have to fight the real phenomena'

According to him, the segregation in education is largely due to the choice of Waldorf school. “As long as parents are allowed to choose, there is a very good chance that they will mainly select based on the backgrounds of students. And then you quickly get that certain schools are avoided by higher educated parents. You just see it happening, and we can't stop those parents."

'It would also be naive', the open letter from the UvA educational scientists stated at the time, 'to think that if we abandon these terms, problems with regard to educational quality, segregation and integration will disappear'. But it's a start, says Kosar-Altinyelken. “The terms mark a symbolic apartheid in the education system and lead to stigmatization. They send an implicit message: black is less.”

It is interesting to what extent the term 'black' says something about the quality of education. “In the XNUMXs and XNUMXs, migration background more often equated to socio-economic disadvantage,” says Denessen. “Low-educated parents with low incomes, and therefore also children with disadvantages. But you see that later generations, especially Turkish and Moroccan migrants, have gradually been emancipated, and that background and disadvantage are therefore less directly related.” According to Denessen, there is a relationship between the two, but it is becoming "less and less visible". “Socio-economic segregation is much more important for opportunities than the origin of the students.”

A name change can be a good thing, but it is not a solution, says Vink. “Language deficiencies, the teacher shortage, polarization: it has been the same debate for fifty years, and there is no simple solution. Because it is so intertwined with many problems in education.” The main problem at the moment, according to Vink? The teacher shortage, without a doubt, because that is also greatest in disadvantaged schools. “Financing must be increased for all disadvantaged schools, both black and white. For small classes, lower workload. You boost a school with good teaching staff. This is the only way to get out of that vicious circle.”

'A name change can be good, but it is not the ultimate solution'

So that a school does not remain white or black, but mixed, grey, black and white or whatever it can be called. In any case, as Hülya Kosar-Altinyelken likes to put it: “A realistic reflection of the country where all students eventually have to find their way.”

This article is from the June Education Magazine. Do you want to stay informed of everything that is going on in education? Join the AOb and receive the Education magazine every month.

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