How parents without a migration background learned to do diversity by mixing schools

Some fifteen years ago in Amsterdam, a group of parents without a migration background living in a highly diverse neighbourhood started an initiative to collectively send their children to the local neighbourhood school in which most of the children were of immigrant descent.

Before that, many had sent their children to less diverse schools in other neighbourhoods, resulting in so-called ‘white flight’ and segregated schools. The initiative tackled the dilemma that many parents without a migration background faced. They did not choose a neighbourhood school if their child was going to be the only one in the classroom without a migration background. Now, these parents collectively asked the school to place their 4-year-olds together in the same class for a more balanced mix. Other groups followed suit, and these initiatives have been a big success. Many schools, including the ones in my own neighbourhood, over a period of 5-10 years changed from being highly segregated schools into mixed schools that also included pupils without a migration background. Previous desegregation attempts by the city council were largely ineffective, e.g. a top-down approach based on class characteristics of parents.

The goal of these parents’ initiatives was to let children with and without a migration background learn and play together. The idea was to grow up in a diverse environment from an early age, as this is the reality in which they would live and work in the future. More than fifteen years later, many schools are more balanced in terms of their ethnic composition. What has been the impact of the mixed schools on the social fabric of the superdiverse neighbourhoods?

Five years ago, I initiated the project Becoming a Minority (BaM). In this project we interviewed over 3 000 people without a migration background (age 25-45) who were living in majority-minority neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods in which people without a migration background form a numerical minority. We asked how they experience living in such a diverse neighbourhood and how mixed their friendship group was. We found that most people considered it enriching to live in an ethnically diverse neighbourhood, but regarding their social circles, the majority mostly had friends without a migration background.

However, about a third of the respondents did have a more mixed friendship group. They were people who either had a partner with a migration background, did sports or other social activities in a group with people from different ethnic backgrounds, or, and this is my point here, sent their children to a mixed school. How does this work? Actually, very simply. Young parents’ social circles are heavily dependent on those of their children. They see other parents in the school yard when bringing their kids to school. The kids have play dates, and parents meet when picking up their child, talk a little and bit by bit become friends. A large part of the social network is linked to the primary school of the children. When a mixed school, this involves parents with a migration background. Interestingly, these parents also reported more contact with people with a migration background as their neighbours and in shops and in the park compared to parents living in the same neighbourhood who sent their children to less mixed schools.

The BaM data shows that creating diversity in the school context seems to spill over to other social activities and interactions and how this positively affects these parents’ overall well-being: they report stronger feelings of belonging in the neighbourhood, trust their neighbours more and experience a greater sense of safety. The parents’ initiatives were focused on mixing the children, but the consequence was a bonus. Creating diversity yields happier residents in today’s superdiverse cities.   

The BaM project and this article have been supported by an advanced grant from the European Research Council (741532).

Photo: Lazy_Bear / AdobeStock