Diversity and inclusion in schools has been high on the agenda since it emerged that the principal of the upper secondary school Langkaer Gymnasium has decided to group together ethnic Danes into three classes where they make up 50% of the students. The rest of the introductory classes – the first of three years at the upper secondary school – will contain no ethnic Danes.
The idea is to support integration in the 50/50 classes and that the students need to be in groups with other young people they can identify with. It is not a good solution, but it was the least worst it was said, to prevent young ethnic Danes from choosing other schools. The student council chairman backed the decision with the same argument.
The debate since then has reflected the complexity and dilemmas of this theme. But unfortunately it also shows how integration issues are misused to create discord via “us vs. them” rhetoric. An example of this is when Inger Støjberg, the Danish minister for immigration, integration and housing, says: “it’s about Danish students who have become a minority in their own schools”. And it’s disheartening that Niels Egelund, Professor at Aarhus University, adds to the debate by saying that “you have to create an environment in which Danish children are not a minority”.
All the young people in question are Danish.
“A minister for integration and a professor of social education who use their influence to rhetorically exclude groups of Danish students in our educational system is inconsiderate to say the least.”
The upper secondary schools belong to everybody who is qualified and interested. It’s a huge victory that the number of young people with ethnic backgrounds other than Danish who are deemed qualified for an upper secondary education is growing. That calls for celebration. And we can thank the young people themselves for their effort, but often also their parents, who have provided support and pushed them forward.
A minister for integration and a professor of social education who use their influence to rhetorically exclude groups of Danish students in our educational system is inconsiderate to say the least.
I understand the frustration of Danes with a different ethnic background, who were born in Copenhagen and grew up with Danish children’s television shows, when they are still termed outsiders and non-Danes. I understand if it sometimes feels like Denmark is a small island where nobody is considered native unless they have lived here for seven generations.
King Harald of Norway gave a speech for his 25th anniversary as a regent on 1 September. He said, “Norwegians are dedicated young people and experienced elderly. Norwegians are single, divorced, families with children, and old married couples. Norwegians are girls who love girls. Boys who love boys. And boys and girls who love each other. Norwegians believe in God, Allah, everything, and nothing. Norwegians come from the north of the country, from the middle, from the south, and all the other regions. Norwegians are immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Poland, Sweden, Somalia and Syria …”
If the tone in the integration debate was closer to King Harald’s rhetoric, I think we would all feel more comfortable. And perhaps we would have the courage to test various models for the best possible inclusion and integration.
I understand the criticism of the class categorisation being done on the basis of the students’ names. That is problematic, and young people are so much more than their ethnic backgrounds. When that is said, I think we should take an open and inquisitive view on solutions aimed at integration and at supporting diverse cultures at education institutions.
In the past week, several young people have joined the debate. In the daily newspaper Politiken Einar Bang Therkildsen wrote about his first-hand experience of what it’s like to be one out of four ethnic Danes in a class with mainly students of other ethnic backgrounds. He very aptly describes how he experiences being a minority: You’re no longer you; you’re “the Dane”. It’s a well-known fact that it’s not particularly nice to be categorised solely based on your ethnicity, gender or religion. Moreover, it’s well documented that people who belong to an underrepresented minority group are often made spokespersons for their gender/race, and that they feel forced to express attitudes and views that are characteristic of their minority group. But when there is a balance, you feel free to be yourself with every aspect that you contain.
It’s important to remember this: every minority group may need to be strengthened and grouped together like they did with the ethnic Danish students at Langkaer Gymnasium. It may make sense to group together Danes with an ethnic minority background or female or male students at study programmes where one gender is significantly underrepresented. And certain measures may be necessary to ensure the best possible learning, teams and results.
In the US, which has been a multicultural society for much longer, the Supreme Court has allowed educational institutions to base student intake on ethnicity. The institutions presented the hypothesis that when grouping together students of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, they have to defend and even redefine their respective views of the world – and that diversity enriches your view of yourself as well as on others.
“Balance in the classroom facilitates contact and friendships between the two groups. Friendships result in increased cultural learning and a sense of belonging, supporting academic learning.”
Moreover, it might be an idea to put together classes of even numbers of minority and majority groups. A study by Baysu, Phalet and Brown (2014) into the success of Turkish minority children in Austrian and Belgian schools revealed that learning outcomes were poor until the ratio approached half-and-half. Balance in the classroom facilitates contact and friendships between the two groups. Friendships result in increased cultural learning and a sense of belonging, supporting academic learning.
Likewise, a study of more than 100 teams from 17 different countries shows that an equal distribution of men and women results in optimal efficiency And another study of working conditions in both public and private sector workplaces in EU27 reveals that both men and women experience a significantly higher sense of wellbeing when both genders are represented. In other words, much suggests that an equal distribution of gender and ethnicity is preferable for a multitude of reasons.
Let’s look at Langkaer Gymnasium as an experiment; evaluate the initiative in three years and see how far they’ve come. Test other models elsewhere. Let the voices of the young people be heard – what worked and what didn’t? Develop new ideas; let the upper secondary schools in the well-off area of Risskov become friendship classes with the classes at Langkaer and other schools nearby. Let the upper secondary schools north of Copenhagen make projects and develop diversity strategies with upper secondary schools south of Copenhagen. Let’s make sure that diversity and inclusion become part of the curriculum for all upper secondary students.
“Let’s be inspired by King Harald’s speech and send clear signals that we are proud of ALL our young people. We’re responsible for creating a good, safe and inclusive tone…”
They will need these skills. The entire labour market increasingly needs competencies in diversity and inclusion. We need people who are good at working together with people who have very different backgrounds and mind-sets. The world is changing and the labour market is becoming more and more globalised. And young people are very exposed to this right now.
Let’s be inspired by King Harald’s speech and send clear signals that we are proud of ALL our young people. We’re responsible for creating a good, safe and inclusive tone and awareness, making it safe to voice the challenges of being a minority of any kind. We are open and curious about finding solutions and following up on best practice.