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1Over the last twenty years, research on the school careers of migrants’ children has focused on their academic success. In a 2009 Population article, Y. Brinbaum and A. Kieffer showed that the educational difficulties of children of immigrant background were largely explained by their socioeconomic environment. Pursuing this line of study, Mathieu Ichou and Marco Oberti adopt a different perspective, examining the links between migration and education via the relationship of students’ families with the school system and their attitudes to their children’s schooling. Using data from a questionnaire survey and interviews conducted in disadvantaged suburbs of the Paris region, the authors compare the various ways in which families apprehend their children’s education. This multidimensional approach reveals the complexity of families’ relationship with the school system, and shows that findings are highly sensitive to the type of indicator used to measure it.

2Most quantitative research into the links between the school system and immigrant families in France concerns the educational trajectories of children from these families at national level (Vallet and Caille, 1996; Brinbaum and Cebolla-Boado, 2007; Cebolla-Boado, 2008; Brinbaum and Kieffer, 2009; Ichou, 2013). In general, these studies share three common characteristics: first, they use data that include few details about families’ migration backgrounds; second, since they focus primarily on educational trajectories, they rarely address relationships with school in a multidimensional manner; and last, they are undertaken on a national scale and therefore pay little or no attention to local contexts. It is precisely these different points that we wish to examine in greater detail in this article, taking as our basis a questionnaire-based survey, later named the “OSC survey” (after the Observatoire sociologique du changement – Sociological Observatory of Change – at Sciences Po Paris), complemented by semi-structured interviews.

3First, with respect to the French context, data on individuals’ migration background are limited and difficult to obtain for very small geographical areas. [1] For school students, the only information often available is nationality, which on its own is not enough to precisely determine their migration background, given that 95% of children with two immigrant parents have French nationality (either by birth or by naturalization; Borrel and Lhommeau, 2010). With regard to the school system, the only freely accessible survey with the necessary data to precisely identify the migration background of children of immigrants in France [2] is that of a panel of students who began secondary school (i.e. at ages 10-12) in 1995. However, even in the research based on this panel (Brinbaum and Cebolla-Boado, 2007; Cebolla-Boado, 2008; Brinbaum and Kieffer, 2009), the concern for statistical power (see Footnote 9) means that two only aggregated groups are used to classify individuals: children of immigrants from Southern Europe or from North Africa. And yet the significant variation in educational trajectories among children of immigrants depending on their parents’ country of origin has been demonstrated by other surveys. In studying educational trajectories, a distinction can be made between three broad origin-based groups: compared with children with native-born French [***] parents from the same social background, children of immigrants from Turkey and, to a lesser extent, the Sahel region, perform less well in school, while children of immigrants from Southeast Asia perform better (Brinbaum et al., 2012; Ichou, 2013; Caille, 1993; Lagrange, 2010a, 2010b; Tribalat, 1995, 1997; Brinbaum et al., 2010). Despite the limited numbers that each of these groups represent within the general population and in surveys, the particular features of their educational trajectories make studying their relationship to school particularly instructive.

4Second, research into educational inequalities related to social or migration background sometimes tends to sideline the question of families’ relationship with the school system and/or to adopt a generalizing, binary vision of attitudes to education based on an opposition between proximity and distance, or between involvement and apathy. Working-class families’ attitudes to the school system, and in particular those of the most disadvantaged fractions of the working classes, are often characterized by their high level of trust (Dubet, 1997) and low degree of involvement (Oberti, 2007; van Zanten, 2001); and their educational practices are often described in terms of their disorganization or their poor fit with the expectations of the school (Thin, 1998). Nevertheless, most researchers are in agreement regarding the complexity and diversity of families’ attitudes to the school system, even within similar social groups (Lahire, 1995; Terrail, 1997; Lorcerie and Cavallo, 2002). As Pujol and Gontier point out, “within a given social group, different forms of parental involvement can be identified, which suggests that the criterion of ‘social position’ cannot be used to predict a homogeneous set of attitudes to school” (1998, p. 258). Lahire (1995) clearly demonstrated how different factors in children’s life histories (e.g. the positive educational experiences of older siblings, parental encouragement, help from grandparents or neighbours) were liable to have a powerful impact on strongly structuring principles of the habitus in working-class settings, in particular attitudes to the written word, to academic knowledge, and therefore also to the school system. In other words, more complex configurations are also possible in the construction of relationships between families and schools in working-class neighbourhoods.

5Third, most quantitative analyses concerning immigrant families and school are based on national data sources which do not capture the effects of the local social and educational context. And yet the presence of immigrant families in France is characterized by their over-representation in the largest urban areas – in particular in Île-de-France (Paris region), which is home to 40% of the entire adult immigrant population in France (Lhommeau and Simon, 2010) – and in certain towns and neighbourhoods within these large urban areas. In several towns in Seine-Saint-Denis (a disadvantaged département to the north-east of Paris), for example, immigrants represent between 30% and 39% of the population, with even higher proportions in certain neighbourhoods within these towns. We also know that levels of ethnic segregation in the Paris region are higher than levels of socioeconomic segregation (Préteceille, 2009); similarly, levels of segregation are higher for children of immigrants in lower secondary schools (collèges) than for their parents within the residential space (Oberti et al., 2012). A study concerning collèges in the Bordeaux region revealed high levels of ethnic segregation (Felouzis, 2003). These contexts of significant segregation affecting children of immigrants are therefore a key characteristic of their experience of the education system that ought to be considered as such. A number of qualitative studies have shown that they represent specific educational contexts from the standpoint of the modes of organization and the social interactions that develop there (Lepoutre, 1997; van Zanten, 2001; Lorcerie, 2003; Felouzis et al., 2005; Sanselme, 2009). In addition to the question of effects specific to individual schools, we felt it would be complementary to also consider neighbourhoods and high schools (lycées) with high levels of social and ethnic segregation.

6In this particular social and urban context, therefore, our research is founded upon a two-pronged question: first, in the working-class towns studied, do the relationships and attitudes to school of immigrant parents differ from those of French-born parents of the same social background? And second, do differences in relationships and attitudes to school exist among immigrant families from different geographical origins?

I – Constructing the empirical material: study area and survey

Particularly disadvantaged towns and high schools

7The OSC survey conducted in 2007–2008 concerns four high schools (lycées) located in four working-class towns in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris (Épinay-sur-Seine, Saint-Ouen, Clichy-sous-Bois, and Bondy) that are involved in partnership programmes with the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris (more commonly known as Sciences Po Paris). [3] These are specific urban and educational contexts in which the high concentration of first- and second-generation immigrant populations is a key element of both their stigmatization and their selection for the implementation of “positive discrimination” programmes organized by a prestigious higher-education institution. With their high concentration of poverty and unemployment, and their high proportion of immigrant families, these neighbourhoods are very different from the vast majority of neighbourhoods in the Paris region, which are socially and ethnically mixed in general (Préteceille, 2006, 2009), and from towns and cities elsewhere in France. We shall therefore avoid making any generalizations concerning France as a whole based on conclusions drawn from this survey alone.

8By describing these towns and schools as “working-class”, we do not wish to minimize the sometimes substantial differences that exist not just between the various schools and towns selected, but also between the different neighbourhoods within each of these towns. Here, however, we have chosen to focus on the characteristics they have in common and how these characteristics differ from the average distribution among the population of the Paris region: the population of these towns is young, with few or no qualifications, and comprises a large proportion of manual and clerical workers, and of foreigners (two to three times more than the regional average), immigrants and large families (Table 1). Overall, in these four towns, around 60% of the working population are categorized as manual or clerical workers, almost a third of those aged 15 and over have no qualifications, just under half of the population are aged under 30, immigrants represent around a third of the population on average, and the unemployment rate is between 16% and 22%.

9However, one town stands out from the rest, namely Clichy-sous-Bois. It is clearly the most disadvantaged of the four (highest unemployment rate and lowest median income per consumption unit). The proportion of working-class residents, together with the proportion of immigrants, is more than 10 percentage points higher than for Bondy, with an even greater gap in terms of the proportion of inhabitants without any qualifications, while the percentage of large families in Clichy-sous-Bois is four times higher than in Saint-Ouen.

10In many respects, the lycées in these four towns have characteristics in common that mark them out as socially and educationally marginalized. For example, the percentage of students who are at least two years behind, compared to the average, when they enter high school is double the average for the region covered by the Créteil education authority (académie de Créteil). [4] Similarly, the proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds in these four high schools (51%) is very much higher than the average for lycées in the académie de Créteil (33%), as is, to a lesser extent, the rate of repetition of school years. Out of the four high schools studied, the lycée in Clichy-sous-Bois in particular stands out, as it has a much higher proportion of students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. For all four high schools, bearing in mind the limitations of the nationality variable, the proportion of foreign students is twice as high, on average, as for the académie de Créteil as a whole (between 13% and 17% of students in these four high schools have foreign nationality, compared with an académie-wide average of just 7.6%).

Administering the questionnaire

11The structure of the specific population surveyed in these towns (parents of students attending a public lycée) is not significantly different from that of the general population in these four areas, which is not surprising given the increasing percentage of students who continue to lycée, including in these towns with higher proportions of working-class families. This remark primarily concerns social category, level of education, type of housing tenure, and the proportion of foreigners and immigrants (Table 1 and Appendix Table A.1). Nevertheless, by definition, only those households with at least one child attending a lycée are questioned, which necessarily introduces an element of selection and excludes those parents whose children leave the education system earlier. Consequently, it is likely that the analyses conducted will focus on families that are not among those most distanced from the world of education.

Table 1

Key social indicators for the four towns studied compared with the Seine-Saint-Denis département and the Paris region as a whole, 2009

Table 1
Épinay-sur-Seine Saint-Ouen Clichy-sous-Bois Bondy Seine-Saint-Denis Paris region Number of inhabitants 53,777 46,510 29,962 53,448 1,491,970 11,728,240 Owners of their primary residence (%) 37.7 19.9 40.7 44.7 41.0 47.5 Social-housing tenants (%) 38.2 37.0 54.3 35.5 32.4 21.9 Working classes (manual and clerical workers,%) 64.0 56.7 71.3 59.8 56.6 40.9 No qualifications (% of over-15s) 31.6 28.6 47.5 30.7 29.2 17.7 2+ years of higher education (%) 9.0 11.0 7.1 9.7 10.0 12.9 Population under 30 years of age (%) 46.8 42.6 53.7 44.3 43.6 40.5 Foreigners (%) 24.0 27.0 37.0 20.0 21.0 12.5 Immigrants (%) 30.0 33.0 39.0 28.0 26.0 16.9 Large families (4+ children,%) 7.7 3.2 12.6 5.9 5.2 3.3 Unemployment rate (%) 15.9 17.7 22.3 17.7 16.5 10.9 Annual median income per consumption unit (euros) 13,207 14,261 9,538 14,118 15,081 21,791

Key social indicators for the four towns studied compared with the Seine-Saint-Denis département and the Paris region as a whole, 2009

Source: INSEE, general population census, 2009.

12The questionnaire protocol was designed to reduce potential selection bias within the schools themselves. Two methods of questionnaire administration were selected. The first consisted of presenting the survey to students in their classes and, with their agreement, asking them to have their parents fill in the questionnaire, with their assistance if necessary, before returning it to us the following week. They could also return it directly to their teacher. With this method, there was a risk that parents least inclined to respond – owing to factors such as difficulty in understanding the questionnaire, opposition to the project, a lack of interest, students forgetting to give the questionnaire to their parents, or parents forgetting to complete it – might be excluded de facto from the survey, thus resulting in an over-representation of the parents most “involved” in their children’s education. We therefore selected a complementary method that would enable us to reach all parents. The parents in question were invited to meet an interviewer following the obligatory parent-teacher meeting to discuss the student’s end-of-term report. Obviously, not all of them accepted this invitation, but this method did enable us to convince a proportion of reticent or indifferent parents to complete the questionnaire, and to provide direct assistance to those who wished to be helped in this way. This second method certainly reduced collection bias, although it did not eliminate it completely. Despite the efforts made, we can reasonably assume that our method led to an under-representation of parents least involved in their children’s education at the lycée. In total, out of almost 3,000 questionnaires distributed or presented directly to parents, we ultimately collected and processed around 1,200 (or 40%). Despite a lower response rate, [5] organizing an ad hoc questionnaire has three main advantages over most national surveys conducted by public statistics offices: respondents’ precise migration background can be identified; specific questions concerning different aspects of their relationship with school and education can be asked; and the survey can be incorporated into a larger set of local surveys covering a broader field of study.

13In total, 42 semi-structured interviews were conducted with parents of students in each of the four lycées (11 from Saint-Ouen, 10 from Clichy-sous-Bois, 9 from Bondy, and 12 from Épinay-sur-Seine). These interviews, which mostly took place within the school itself and lasted around an hour in general, were designed to obtain a qualitative assessment of parents’ relationship with the neighbourhood of residence, the school, and the education of their children. They often had to be rescheduled several times, as certain parents did not attend the appointments made a week in advance. In cases where parents did not speak French, the student was present in order to translate the proceedings.

14The expression “relationship with” school, education or the school system must here be understood as all representations, attitudes and practices in connection with school and education. They are organized here into the following five dimensions:

  • Educational support within the local community
  • Parents’ educational aspirations for their children
  • Parental involvement in school life
  • Parental involvement in home tuition
  • Knowledge of the school and information-seeking.

15Each dimension is measured by one or more variables, presented in Table 2. They are taken directly from the responses given in the questionnaire, without any kind of grouping or modification, with the exception of two variables: first, the variable that measures educational support within the local community combines responses to three questions relating to assistance provided by neighbours or friends in taking children to school, looking after them before or after school, or helping them with homework. [6] If parents responded in the affirmative to at least one of these three questions, they were considered as benefiting from community educational support. It should be noted that these questions, unlike the others, do not concern only those children attending the lycée but also any other siblings. Second, the variable that measures parents’ educational aspirations for their children corresponds to a recoding that distinguishes parents who report wishing to see their children complete at least three years of higher education from the other parents.

Table 2

Distribution of variables describing relationship to the school system in the OSC survey

Table 2
Dimension Question Reponse Frequency (%) 1 Do neighbours or friends… … take your children to school: yes [or] 36.7 … look after your children before or after school: yes [or] … help your children with their homework: yes 2 To what level would you like your children to pursue their education? Don’t know 37.4 Lower-secondary vocational diploma (CAP, BEP) High-school diploma (baccalauréat) or equivalent 2 years of higher education (IUT, BTS) 3-5 years of higher education (bachelor’s, master’s degree) 62.6 Business school, engineering school, or other elite grandes école PhD 3 How often do you meet with teachers? Often 13.8 From time to time 67.7 Never 18.5 How often do you participate in events organized at the school? Often 7.8 From time to time 27.6 Never 64.6 Are you a member of a parents’ association? Yes 4.8 No 95.2 4 How often do you supervise your children’s homework? Often 28.9 From time to time 44.1 Never 27.0 How often do you talk to them about school and their studies? Often 46.2 From time to time 39.3 Never 14.5 5 Have you heard about Sciences Po’s experimental project? Yes 32.9 No 67.1 How well did you know the school before you enrolled your child? Very well 18.1 Well 25.7 Not very well 30.5 Not at all 25.7 Did you seek information about the school before enrolment? Yes 35.4 No 64.6

Distribution of variables describing relationship to the school system in the OSC survey

Note: 1,191 respondents. Non-responses are treated as missing data.
Source: OSC survey.

16Differentiating these five dimensions also means assuming that they do not necessarily operate together. The credibility of this assumption is supported by numerous studies of parental involvement in schooling, notably in the US (such as Hoover-Dempsey and Sandler, 1997). We shall see, for example, that while families from certain groups develop strong relationships of mutual support for schooling and education, they are less active in other areas, such as extra tuition at home or participation in school meetings. By making a distinction between these different components, we can understand the registers and levels on which different groups become involved (or otherwise), and thus explore the effects of the resources, strategies and constraints at play. Clearly, not all of these dimensions can be assessed independently of their specific content. The questionnaire is poorly suited to analysing each dimension in detail, so we also use extracts from interviews to shed further light on certain results.

II – The “origin” variable and the categories used

Asking about “origin” in the survey

17Two variables are traditionally used in France to determine an individual’s migration background: nationality and country of birth (Simon, 1999, 2008). Nationality merely defines foreign nationals (i.e. who do not have French citizenship), while the “immigrant” category refers to someone born in a foreign country, with foreign nationality at birth, who lives in France. In the OSC survey, the following two questions were asked of students’ parents:

  • What is your nationality? (father/mother)
  • What is your country of origin? (father/mother)

18The second question does not ask about place of birth. Here, “origin” must be understood as a reference to the origin reported by students’ parents; the nature of the origin with which they identify cannot be further specified. For this reason, we shall use the term “origin” either unqualified or with the adjective “migratory”, rather than “ethnic”. This is a precautionary measure to avoid assigning, ex ante, more “ethnicity” to certain groups than to others, as is often a risk with non-European migrants.

19Our definition of “origin” also enables us to include the “French overseas territories” as one of our categories. Obviously, the individuals in this category are not true immigrants; rather, they are parents who, for the most part, gave either Guadeloupe or Martinique as their responses to this question. Like immigrants from other countries, these internal migrants have extensive experience of geographical mobility and of adaptation to a new social, economic and cultural environment (Rallu, 1997). And like many postcolonial immigrants, migrants from overseas territories are also likely to experience segregation (Préteceille, 2009) and discrimination based partly on skin colour.

20Wording our question about origin in this way offered a dual advantage, which was revealed by the results we obtained. It not only functions as a quite reliable proxy for country of birth, but also tells us something about the importance of this origin in the way respondents define their identities. Stating a country of origin other than one’s country of birth and using it to define one’s own identity is a means of expressing an attachment to this origin. This question thus enabled us to incorporate a subjective element into the identification of parents’ origins, which would not have been possible if only nationality and country of birth had been recorded.

21Based on respondents’ stated origins, the proportion of households where both parents reported being of French origin is around 20%, rising to 24% if we include all households of European origin and to 30% if we include households where at least one parent reports a French origin. In other words, almost 70% of students from these schools come from families where both parents migrated to France from outside Europe. [7] While systematic comparisons are impossible, owing to the lack of appropriate data, the proportion of students with migration backgrounds in the four schools studied seems to be well above the average for lycées in the Paris region (Oberti et al., 2012).

Constructing the categories of origin

22On the question of migration background, the choice of categories is particularly delicate and, in France, is complicated by problems of data availability and by strict legal constraints. Most existing studies, based on panels of students followed by the French Ministry of Education (Brinbaum and Cebolla-Boado, 2007; Brinbaum and Kieffer, 2005, 2009), concern children of immigrants from Southern Europe and from North Africa, the two most populous groups of second-generation immigrants in France. This categorization, developed with a view to ensuring adequate statistical power, does not capture the full diversity of migration histories in France. In particular, more recent and less numerically significant migration flows from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Turkey do not really fit into these categories.

23Other studies, based on different samples, reveal the extent of educational heterogeneity among children of immigrants and the importance of identifying smaller groups. For instance, Brinbaum, Moguérou and Primon (2012), in their work on the Trajectories and Origins (TeO) survey, demonstrate the specific educational situations of children of Turkish and Southeast Asian immigrants: the former often obtain no qualifications and underachieve in the baccalauréat examinations, while the latter pass the baccalauréat in higher proportions than other groups. The results obtained by Ichou (2013), based on the French Ministry of Education’s 1997 panel of students, confirm the relative rankings of these two groups (for other studies with concordant findings, see Caille, 1993; Tribalat, 1997; Brinbaum et al., 2010). Furthermore, the relatively poor educational results of children of immigrants from the Sahel region (especially compared with children of immigrants from other regions of sub-Saharan Africa) were highlighted by Lagrange (2010a, 2010b), based on a survey in the Yvelines département and in Nantes (see also Brinbaum et al., 2010; Ichou, 2013).

24Building on these studies, we chose to identify a large number of groups of migration backgrounds, as one of the aims of our study was to demonstrate the utility of making finer distinctions between groups of immigrants in order to reveal the heterogeneity of their relationships with the school system (Table 3; see also, in Appendix Table A.2, the distribution of mothers’ educational levels by migration background). This choice reduced the statistical power of our analyses and increased the risk of obtaining non-significant results. [8] Consequently, if the results prove to be statistically significant, this means that the effect of respondents’ origin on their relationship with school is strong enough to be detectable despite the low statistical power. In addition, we used a method for determining the significance of our statistical estimates – bootstrapping – that is more robust than conventional methods, particularly for small samples (Fox, 2008). [9]

Table 3

Distribution of migration backgrounds of students in the OSC survey

Table 3
% N Metropolitan France 19.5 232 Europe 4.5 54 Asia 6.5 78 Sahel 5.1 61 Maghreb 27.2 324 Other African countries 7.6 91 French overseas territories 7.3 87 Turkey 4.8 57 Mixed (one French parent) 6.5 78 Mixed (no French parents) 3.9 46 Other 7.0 83 Total 100.0 1,191

Distribution of migration backgrounds of students in the OSC survey

Source: OSC survey.

III – Influence of migration background on the relationship with the school system

25First of all, we examined the bivariate relationships between migration background and each of the 10 variables used to describe the relationship to the school system. Owing to a lack of space, we shall not present all the contingency tables here. Nevertheless, the intensity and statistical significance of these relationships are summarized in the upper section of Table 4 (Cramér’s V and chi-squared test). For each of the educational attitudes studied, the relationship with origin is statistically significant.

26To determine the effect of migration background on the five dimensions of the relationship with the school system, two nested logistic regression models were estimated for each of the 10 variables used to describe family attitudes to school and education. [10] For each variable, the first model contained eight explanatory variables characterizing the socio-demographic properties of the student’s family, lycée and year group. The following aspects were included: a combination of occupation and socio-occupational category (SOC) for each parent, the level of education of each parent, family situation, parents’ current labour market status, number of siblings, and the student’s year group and lycée (Appendix Table A.1). Using the results from this first model we can then assess the influence of these variables – classic in the sociology of education – on the 10 attitudes of parents towards the school system. The second model then reuses these eight variables, to which is added migration background, in order to highlight the specific influence of this factor, holding other social characteristics constant. Table 4 summarizes the results of these models. It contains two types of information:

  • the statistical significance associated with the addition of the migration background variable (likelihood ratio test comparing model M2 with model M1, on the line labelled “LR test” in Table 4);
  • the explanatory power of each model (Nagelkerke’s pseudo-R2, which can be interpreted, by approximation, as the degree of variance for a given attitude that can be attributed to the model (Cohen et al., 2003)).

Table 4

Summary of cross tables and logistic models M1 (without migration background) and M2 (with migration background)

Table 4
Predicted variable Dimension 1 Dimension 2 Dimension 3 Dimension 4 Dimension 5 Community educational support Parents’ educational aspirations for children Parental involvement in school life Parental involvement in home tuition Knowledge of the school and information-seeking Help from neighbours Parents’ educational aspirations Frequency of meetings with teachers Participation in school events Participation in parents’ associations Supervision of homework Discussion of education Knowledge of the Sciences Po project Knowledge of the lycée Info. sought about the lycée Chi² test *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ** *** Cramer’s V 0.232 0.183 0.166 0.154 0.239 0.155 0.208 0.213 0.119 0.155 LR test *** *** *** ns *** *** *** *** ** ns Model M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 M1 M2 Pseudo-R² 5.6 8.0 5.7 9.4 8.7 12.3 8.5 10.7 18.2 26.6 9.8 13.1 11.9 15.6 7.9 10.0 7.5 10.9 5.9 6.6 N 1,126 1,191 1,173 1,157 1,191 1,169 1,171 1,162 1,176 1,174

Summary of cross tables and logistic models M1 (without migration background) and M2 (with migration background)

Note: For each of the attitudes studied, the left-hand column contains the pseudo-R² for model M1 (without migration background) and the right-hand column contains the pseudo-R2 for model M2 (with migration background). For ease of reading, the pseudo-R² has been multiplied by 100.
Significance: * p < 0.10; ** p < 0.05; *** p < 0.01; ns: non-significant.
Source: OSC survey.

27The standard socio-demographic variables are linked to each of the 10 attitudes used to describe the relationship to the school system, but the explanatory power of these variables varies substantially according to the attitude considered. They rarely account for more than 10% of the variation of the attitudes studied (see the pseudo-R2 values in Table 4). The attitude for which the family’s socio-demographic properties makes the greatest difference is participation in parents’ associations.

28The results for model M2 proved more fruitful from our perspective. Once the information contained in the eight variables detailing the student’s social background are taken into account, incorporating knowledge of the family’s migration background provides an additional and significant explanatory gain in almost every case. Only the frequency of meetings with teachers and participation in school events were not explained significantly better when the family’s migration background was included, as indicated by the likelihood ratio test. The family’s migration background proved especially useful in explaining the other eight variables used to characterize the different dimensions of the relationship with the school system. In the case of the variables concerning community support and parents’ educational aspirations for their children (the first two dimensions of the relationship with school), the addition of the migration background variable substantially increased the degree of variance explained. Even for the other dimensions, the explanatory power of the model is significantly better when migration background is included as a predictor (see the increase in pseudo-R2 between models M1 and M2).

29To better assess the influence of migration background on the relationship with the school system, Table 5 gives the odds ratios associated with each category of migration background compared with families of French origin. In the vast majority of cases, when they differ significantly from those for native French families, the attitudes of immigrant families all go in the same direction, regardless of the parents’ geographical origins. Having immigrant parents therefore seems to have an effect that is likely to partially transcend the specific (e.g. cultural) characteristics associated with each country of origin. That said, significant variations exist among immigrant families, depending on their migration background.

30In the comments that follow, we have chosen to focus on interpreting results that show significant differences between immigrant and French families’ relationships with the school system. We have made this choice because, in our view, these are the most original results with respect to existing research in the sociology of education. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that whenever the gaps between groups of immigrant parents and native French parents from the same social background are not significant, we must conclude that, in these cases, they have similar attitudes to school and education.

Stronger community educational support among immigrant families

31In comparison to families of French origin, all the migrant groups were more likely to make use of informal local educational support networks. Among these families, the highest odds ratio (4.49), for households of Turkish origin, was two to three times higher than the odds ratios for Asian families (1.96), families of Maghrebi origin (1.72) and families originating from French overseas territories (1.76). In other words, compared with French-origin families, families of Turkish origin were almost five times more likely to use local informal support for their children’s schooling. Statistically, this level of use of local support networks is significantly higher than for all other immigrant groups, apart from those originating from Europe (test not present in the table). Compared with French-origin households, families from the Maghreb, Asia and French overseas territories were “only” twice as likely to use this kind of support.

32These results are consistent with those already presented by other researchers concerning the importance of the extended family and neighbours in the educational practices of immigrant families (Lahire, 1995; van Zanten, 2001; Santelli, 2001). However, the effects of greater local community support on children’s educational performance in these urban and educational contexts remain unclear. Within the framework of this survey, we do not have the resources to study these effects, but certain elements taken from interviews with parents shed light on the question. While, in certain situations, community educational support may be an educationally effective resource, this is far from universally true. Indeed, certain forms of community support, associated with forms of childcare that are not conducive to undertaking school work, for example, may potentially have counterproductive effects on children’s education. Immigrant women’s greater involvement in looking after children needs to be linked to two characteristics of the mothers in question: their substantial presence in the home [11] and, when they work, non-standard working hours. This is likely to result in one of two scenarios: long periods with little or no parental supervision outside school hours for the youngest children; or the presence of several children (not necessarily from the same family) in the same home. This is the case, for instance, for immigrant women who work as office cleaners, and whose non-standard working hours (early in the morning and in the evening) mean they cannot be at home during periods of the day typically devoted to homework or out-of-school activities. These forms of community support are just as much – if not more so – a response to constraints related to family, work and/or difficult financial situations as to strategies for “educational success” per se. For the families of Turkish origin we interviewed, the community dimension, whereby other members of the group supervise and look after children, is favoured, and the convenience and low cost of this community support, made possible by the very high proportion of women who stay at home, are essential. However, this community-based dimension does not seem to be directly aimed at fostering educational success (Brinbaum et al., 2012; Ichou, 2013), and the question of the educational effectiveness of what could be called local or community-based social capital remains largely unanswered (Portes, 1998; with regard to France: Lagrange, 2010b). In this connection, Granovetter’s work (1973) on the strength of weak ties could be adapted and extended to analysing children’s circles of socialization, particularly in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Higher educational aspirations among immigrant families

33When immigrant households differ significantly from families of French origin, they are much more likely to have high educational aspirations for their children. For example, when we compare these households with French-origin families from the same social background, parents of Maghrebi and Asian origin are three times more likely to want their child to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, rather than a lower qualification (Table 5). The odds ratio is 2.6 for families originating from non-Sahelian regions of sub-Saharan Africa and 2 for families of Turkish origin.

Table 5

Odds ratios resulting from logistic regressions representing the link between migration background and the relationship with the school system

Table 5
Dimension 1 Dimension 2 Dimension 3 Dimension 4 Dimension 5 Help from neighbours Parents’ educational aspirations Meetings with teachers Participation in school events Participation in parents’ associations Supervision of homework Discussion of education Knowledge of the Sciences Po project Knowledge of the lycée Info. sought about the lycée France (ref.) 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 Europe 2.81*** 1.41 1.12 0.84 (0)+ 0.85 0.27 0.27*** 0.37* 1.24 Asia 1.96** 3.01*** 0.14*** 0.24** 0.12*** 0.35** 0.05*** 0.31*** 0.50 0.64 Sahel 1.93* 1.48 0.36 0.21** (0)+ 1.26 0.08*** 0.52 0.44 0.63 Maghreb 1.72** 3.13*** 0.65 0.69 0.15*** 1.37 0.19*** 0.63** 1.03 0.89 Other African 2.07** 2.56*** 0.92 1.33 0.13*** 1.87 0.16*** 0.56* 0.36** 0.77 Overseas Fr. 1.76* 1.17 0.78 0.43 0.23** 2.24* 0.28* 0.68 0.51 0.61 Turkey 4.49*** 2.07** 0.15** 0.70 (0)+ 0.67 0.11*** 0.71 1.42 0.88 Mixed (1 French) 0.81 1.17 0.41 0.60 0.54 0.64 0.36 0.64 0.43* 0.79 Mixed (0 French) 1.90 3.66** 0.45 0.74 0.42 2.09 0.08*** 0.63 0.21** 0.57

Odds ratios resulting from logistic regressions representing the link between migration background and the relationship with the school system

Note: Each cell in the table contains the odds ratio associated with each category of the “origin” variable. The following factors are controlled: parents’ SOC, father’s educational level, mother’s educational level, family situation, parents’ labour market status, number of siblings, and the student’s year group and lycée. Where the dependent variable was dichotomous, binary logistic regression was used to predict the existence of the educational practice in question as opposed to its absence. Where the dependent variable was polytomous, multinomial logistic regression was used instead. The odds ratios presented in this case are linked to the opposition between the two extreme categories of the variable (e.g. “often” versus “never”). Examples are proposed in the text.
Significance levels: * p < 0.10; ** p < 0.05; *** p < 0.01; + the odds ratio is zero for this migration background group because no individuals in the sample belong to a parents’ association.
Source: OSC survey.

34The high educational aspirations of immigrant families are characterized by a factor that sets them apart from all the other attitudes studied: they are only weakly linked to family resources such as parents’ educational capital. A systematic analysis of interaction effects (not presented here owing to lack of space), shows that the data backs up this observation.

35Table 6 gives an overview of the interaction effect between maternal educational capital and migration background in the explanation of parental aspirations. In families of French origin, the educational level of the mother – an indicator of educational capital possessed by the family as a whole – has a powerful effect on parents’ educational aspirations: the proportion of parents who want their child to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree (25% and 59%) is multiplied by a factor of almost 2.5 when we compare households where the mother has no qualifications with those where the mother has at least a secondary-school diploma. This variation in parental aspirations associated with the mother’s level of education is significantly lower in immigrant families. Furthermore, it is in families of Maghrebi origin where the effect is weakest: in households where the mother has a secondary school diploma or higher, 75% of parents in the sample want their child to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, barely more than the proportion of parents in households where the mother has no qualifications (68%).

Table 6

Migration background, mother’s educational level and parents’ educational aspirations

Table 6
Origin Percentage of parents who would like their child to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree Mother with no qualifications Mother has a secondary school diploma or higher Metropolitan France 25 59 Europe 40 62 Maghreb 68 75 Sahel 48 67 Turkey 54 75 Other 57 66

Migration background, mother’s educational level and parents’ educational aspirations

Source: OSC survey.

36This interaction is represented in Figure 1 in the form of predicted probabilities resulting from a logistic model that controls for the effect of families’ social characteristics. Given the relatively small sample size, interaction effects were introduced using a dichotomous version of migration background that only distinguishes between native French and immigrant families. This graph clearly shows that the mother’s level of education has a positive effect on educational aspirations, but that this effect is much stronger among French-origin parents. On average, immigrant parents, regardless of the mother’s level of education, have higher educational aspirations than non-immigrant parents, even if this difference tends to be much smaller for those with the highest qualifications.

Figure 1

Predicted probability of high educational aspirations by migration background and mother’s level of education

Figure 1

Predicted probability of high educational aspirations by migration background and mother’s level of education

Source: OSC survey.

37However, it has not been established whether these higher educational aspirations among immigrant families – already highlighted in numerous studies (Vallet and Caille, 1996; Caille and O’Prey, 2002; Brinbaum and Kieffer, 2005; Caille, 2007) – are systematically a positive factor in young people’s educational and occupational trajectories. While they are associated with better educational outcomes among children of immigrants compared with children from French-origin families with the same social background (Vallet and Caille, 1996; Brinbaum and Kieffer, 2009), it is not certain whether the association between the two also exists in extremely disadvantaged social and urban contexts, such as those studied in this article. Certain interviews with respondents clearly show that a desire to see one’s child study “law or medicine” may be completely disconnected from practical realities, given the highly selective nature of the school careers required to access these occupations, the track choices available to students, and more generally, the educational strategies necessary to achieve this objective. For the most ambitious families, “university” or “higher education” is envisaged for the child without always mentioning specific tracks or courses. Such wishes are typically expressed in very general or abstract terms:


We’ve always thought about something high-level, long studies, higher education.
(female, age 40, secretary in the family business, vocational baccalauréat, Tunisian origin, Bondy)


My son, at the moment, he likes [school]. So I hope he’ll get his baccalauréat and be able to go further, to go to university.
(female, age 40, cleaner, completed lower secondary school, French origin, Épinay-sur-Seine)


What would you like your child to do in terms of education?
I’d like him to go on to higher education, but, well, he doesn’t fancy the idea.
(female, age 45, childminder, no qualifications, Algerian origin, Bondy)

41Among these aspirations, becoming “a doctor” or “doing medicine” are most frequently cited, along with becoming “a lawyer” or “a vet”:


Would you like your son to pursue certain studies in particular?
Mother: I want something prestigious [for him].
What, more specifically?
Mother: To study medicine.
[Addressing son] And do you see yourself staying in education after the baccalauréat?
Son: yes.
To do what?
I don’t know….
(female, age 54, stay-at-home mother, lower primary school, Algerian origin, Saint-Ouen)


We can’t decide for him but, personally, I’d like him to become a doctor. But he doesn’t want to!.
(female, age 42, caretaker of an apartment building, lower secondary vocational qualification, Tunisian origin, Saint-Ouen)

44These ambitions are, in fact, not only educational but also occupational and social, as evidenced by the constant dissociation between the desired occupation and the child’s actual educational career. An initial form of disconnection can be seen in the precise naming of occupations without specifying the type of course required, as if these elements were secondary or, more likely, unknown. Furthermore, parents do not necessarily take their children’s actual grades into consideration. Elsewhere in these interviews, a number of parents do recognize that their child’s level of attainment is average or poor. Finally, some parents acknowledge that they are projecting their own desires onto their children, who do not yet have any specific plans.


What would you like your son to do?
Oh, me, I’d be delighted if he became a vet. And for my daughter, a lawyer. I’d have liked to be a lawyer. So, if she manages it, it will be a way of projecting my desires. My son, if he manages to become a vet, it will be hard work, but why not. I’d be happy.
(male, age 48, workshop manager, lower secondary vocational qualification, Algerian origin, Épinay-sur-Seine)

46Following Mickelson (1990), it would be very useful here to distinguish, within the range of educational aspirations and expectations, between general, abstract and broadly shared attitudes – namely a belief in the school system as a means of improving future prospects – on the one hand, and practical attitudes to school, which are more socially differentiated and probably more educationally productive, on the other. Ultimately, in these contexts, the primary effect of very high aspirations may in fact be one of frustration when faced with the impossibility of achieving such ambitious goals (Merton, 1938) – a frustration that is likely to be interpreted by students and their families as the product of intentional discrimination (Oberti, 2008). Similar phenomena have been observed for the effects of relaxing school catchment-area rules (Oberti and Rivière, 2014). Immigrant families express a stronger belief in the meritocratic principles and essential role of school, while also tending more often to interpret refusals to grant special dispensations (to attend a school outside the child’s designated catchment area) as examples of discrimination based on their origins and/or the neighbourhood in which they live. Students from immigrant families also express a greater sense of injustice with regard to the educational and career options they are offered (Santelli, 2001; Brinbaum and Kieffer, 2005; Caille, 2007). Accordingly, children of immigrants who perform poorly at school more often feel that their school career path is not really chosen but imposed upon them (Caille, 2007).

47These highly ambitious educational aspirations often seem unrealistic or, at the very least, somewhat disconnected from families’ and students’ objective social and educational situations. They are only rarely supported by the kind of strategies and vigilance needed to actually achieved the stated goals. And even when these ambitious aspirations for higher education – often expressed by children of immigrants who are guided towards vocational lycées and courses (Palheta, 2012) – do result in a university place, the academic outcomes of immigrants’ children are perceptibly less successful than those of children from the mainstream group: among undergraduates, children of immigrants have higher drop-out and failure rates than other students from similar social backgrounds (Frickey and Primon, 2006; Brinbaum and Guégnard, 2011).

48In contrast to families of immigrant origin, French-origin families that live in the neighbourhoods studied, including those with the highest educational levels, are more likely to adjust their expectations to what they judge not only to be “realistic” but also, in many cases, to be more relevant to their child’s abilities and to the local context, the educational options on offer and the labour market. In these families, parents tend to specify a particular qualification, often a master’s degree or a vocational diploma, rather than a more general, prestigious level of attainment (PhD, elite engineering school, etc.). These responses also reflect a more detailed knowledge of the education system. These choices may result, for example, in parents initially guiding their children towards two-year technical and vocational qualifications, such as a BTS (brevet de technicien supérieur) or a DUT (diplôme universitaire de technologie), so that they are better able to enter university at master’s level, rather than directly joining the oversubscribed undergraduate university courses attended from the first year onwards by larger proportions of children of immigrants with higher failure rates (Beaud, 2003). In this respect, the more modest aspirations of the French-origin families who live in these neighbourhoods can be attributed to expectations based on a more acute awareness of both their position within French society and their objective chances of educational and social success.

49A number of complementary explanations are typically proffered for the higher educational aspirations of immigrant families. The first is based on the simple and fundamental principle established by Sayad whereby immigrants are above all emigrants (Sayad, 1999), and that their social position and experience in the host society must be considered in the light of their social position and experience in their society of origin. Many immigrants are “positively selected”, that is to say that, in their country of origin, they occupied relatively advantaged positions. Consequently, their aspirations may correspond more to their previous social position than to their current status in society (Heath et al., 2008). In any event, it is highly probable that immigrants do not fully adjust their aspirations to their current conditions of existence but rather to the “slope” of their individual and collective trajectories (Bourdieu, 1974). [12] Second, “social success” is often a major goal for immigrants: by pushing their children to do well at school, immigrant parents seek to pursue this goal through the success of their offspring (Zehraoui, 1998). Third, in anticipating the discrimination that their children will face in the labour market (Meurs et al., 2006; Tucci, 2010), immigrant parents understand that qualifications are essential for their children’s occupational integration, even more so than for native-born French children. While conscious of the ethnic discrimination that exists in the job market, immigrant parents also seem to believe in a relatively egalitarian school system.

Few differences in involvement in school life, except with respect to parents’ associations

50The differences between immigrant families and French-origin families are less systematic when it comes to participation in school life (frequency of meetings with teachers, participation in group activities, and membership of a parents’ association). Nevertheless, the migrant groups whose behaviour differs significantly from that of French-origin families are noticeably less involved in school life. The probability of parents reporting that they often meet with teachers compared with having never met with any teachers is, for example, around 7 times lower for families of Turkish (1 / 0.15) and Asian origin (1 / 0.14) than for families of French origin. With regard to group activities at the school, such as information meetings, debates or school artistic productions, it is once again households of Asian origin that report participating the least (this is the only group that differs significantly from native French families in this respect, all other factors being equal). By contrast, almost all immigrant groups differ significantly from French-origin parents in that they are far less likely to be members of a parents’ association. Membership of a parents’ association, more so than any other school-related practice, requires an advanced knowledge of French and a sense of legitimacy within the educational context that immigrant parents often do not possess, especially in the neighbourhoods studied here (Aubert et al., 1997). The limited presence of immigrant families within these associations, compounded by social disparities in terms of membership (Dalsheimer-Van Der Tol and Murat, 2011), is far from a secondary factor with respect to inequalities, given the important role that these associations play not only in the dissemination of useful information regarding educational choices (Gombert, 2008) but also more generally as a forum for negotiation with different educational stakeholders (ranging from the head teacher to the schools inspectorate). In more advantaged contexts, parents’ associations typically attract a higher proportion of parents and can often play a not insignificant role in modifying the educational options on offer, regularly intervening more generally in school life. In schools with more mixed or largely working-class populations, these associations are often “colonized” by ambitious and proactive middle-class parents who maintain or even reinforce the existence of selective or rare tracks and options (van Zanten, 2009). The more marked presence of French-origin families in these associations is therefore accompanied by greater access to resources that will facilitate their children’s educational success.

Minimal differences in supervision of schoolwork, but fewer conversations about education

51Involvement in education in the home is measured by two variables. With respect to the first of these, namely the degree to which parents supervise and assist their children with their homework, Asian families differ the most from families of French origin, as respondents from this group reported helping their children much less often. No other significant difference was observed in this respect, except for families of overseas French origin, who said that they checked their children’s homework more often than families of mainland French origin. The wording of this question in the survey enabled us to measure the frequency with which parents supervised their children’s homework. However, it does not provide any details on the nature of this supervision (monitoring, checking, assisting, structuring, oral questioning/recital). Existing studies on educational practices in working-class and immigrant families (Thin, 1998; Périer, 2005), along with the interviews conducted as part of this study, tend to show that, most of the time, help with homework consists of overseeing children’s activities while they do their homework. Owing to parents’ low educational capital, the assistance they provide does not correspond to a true learning activity (Ichou, 2010), as is typically the case in less disadvantaged families of French or immigrant origin (Kapko, 2012).

52The second variable, namely the extent to which parents talk about school and education with their children, reveals more marked differences between French-origin and immigrant families – as well as significant disparities between the various groups. Generally speaking, immigrant parents, whatever their origin, reported talking about school with their children much less often than parents of French origin. When other variables were held constant, it was parents of Asian, Sahelian and Turkish origin who least often reported discussing school with their children. Within these groups, parents are, respectively, 20 (1 / 0.05), 12 (1 / 0.08) and 10 (1 / 0.11) times less likely to discuss schoolwork than parents of French origin. This variable is particularly important for understanding, in their most intimate dimensions, the relationships that are likely to develop between parents and their children on the issue of school. At the same time, it reflects the distance that sometimes exists between parents’ own experience of school – often brief and in very different contexts – and the experiences of their children in a French lycée. This unfamiliarity with the codes and expectations of the school system in France makes discussing education with their children all the more difficult and asymmetric. This cannot, therefore, in any way be interpreted as a lack of interest on the part of parents (Lahire, 1995; Ichou, 2010), but rather reflects a dual process of deference to the school institution on the one hand, and to the child on the other (Oberti et al., 2009). The remarks made by parents during interviews clearly highlight their trust and confidence in the school, in terms of decision-making and career orientation, and in the judgements made by teachers.


Do you think that parents should be free to choose whichever school they like for their children?
Personally, I think that it would be better for teachers to decide which school is right for them. We go with what the teacher tells us. It’s all very well saying, “I don’t want my daughter to go to this school or that school,” but the teachers are in a position, a better position than I am, to know which lycée or school is best suited to my daughter or my son.
(male, age 46, sales worker, baccalauréat, Malian origin, Clichy-sous-Bois)


Do you feel that the lycée has given parents enough information about the experimental classes?
No. I only found out about them when he was going on a trip to China. I don’t know exactly what these classes consist of.
And is that a problem for you?
I trust the school, the lycée.
(female, age 54, stay-at-home mother, lower primary school, Algerian origin, Saint-Ouen)

55This trust is linked in part to parents’ low level of knowledge and skills in the realm of education, but also to a certain idea of the “French lycée”, founded on respect and prestige. This sense of not having the necessary skills or legitimacy to intervene in their children’s education (Dubet, 1997) also means that parents tend to defer to their children, who have often grown up in France and been partially socialized in and by the French school system. Obviously, the length of time that parents have lived in France and whether they received any schooling there are very important factors in understanding this phenomenon. [13] Unfortunately, these two pieces of data are absent from our questionnaire. At national level, according to the TeO survey, considerable differences are linked to the dates of arrival of the various immigrant groups in France (Beauchemin et al., 2010): in 1965, half of all Spanish and Italian immigrants had already arrived in France (and half of these immigrants were under 8 years of age at the time of their arrival), the equivalent date is 1981 for immigrants from South-East Asia, 1989 for those from Turkey, 1990 for those from Algeria, and as late as 1995 for those from sub-Saharan Africa (with half of these immigrants aged under 23 upon arrival in France). For parents who arrived in France recently with little or no knowledge of the French language, intervening in students’ educational choices appears to be even more problematic. As many parents said in the survey, “it’s up to them to choose”.


Is your child pursuing the educational path that you wanted for him?
Yes, yes. At the time, I don’t think we really had a choice, we didn’t really have a choice. But he’s a hard-working boy. So he chose the path he wanted. After all, it’s up to him to choose his own path.
(male, age 51, manual worker, lower secondary vocational qualification, Algerian origin, Clichy-sous-Bois)


You were telling me that your son wanted to do engineering?
Yes, he wants to be an engineer.
And is this the type of educational path that you wanted for him?
Yes. For me… well, it’s his choice. OK, the parents, they… But it’s the children who… It’s their future. It’s up to him… to choose what he wants to do.
(female, age 52, unemployed, lower secondary certificate, Moroccan origin, Saint-Ouen)


Who makes the decisions concerning Yasmina’s education?
Well, I don’t know… it’s up to her to choose because she talks about it, she asks lots of questions. She talks about it with her friends.
And do you think that parents should be allowed to decide which school they send their children to?
At the moment, yes, at the moment, yes, because there are often students who want to go to such-and-such a lycée because their friend goes there… but, me, I couldn’t really say, I couldn’t really say.
(female, age 36, cleaner, lower secondary vocational qualification, Maghrebi origin, Bondy)


What do you think about the experimental classes?
I don’t know exactly what this “experiment” is about. Well, my daughter started to explain it to me. But I still don’t really understand… I don’t have all the necessary details… about this experiment.
(female, age 59, unemployed, completed lower secondary school, Moroccan origin, Saint-Ouen)

60This dual deference is not specific to immigrant families and can also be found in certain working-class French-origin families, but the degree of trust placed in the school does not, however, seem to be quite as high and sometimes quite as unconditional as it is for many immigrant parents. This deference to the institution and to the child stems from the parents’ sense of ignorance and illegitimacy.

Limited awareness of the Sciences Po programme and little knowledge of the school

61This attitude of deference to the school and, above all, to the child, is also evident in parents’ information-seeking behaviour with regard to the lycée and the Sciences Po programme. All groups whose behaviours differed significantly from that of the mainstream group less often reported knowing about the Sciences Po project. [14] However, these differences were not significant for obtaining information about the lycée before enrolment; indeed, differences in knowledge about the school were significant for only two groups (Europe and Other African countries). In fact, what stands out more clearly in the survey is the parents’ lack of knowledge about their child’s school, be they of immigrant or French (Table 2). Over half of parents reported that they knew nothing or relatively little about the school in question before enrolling their child, and only a third of parents sought information to this end. Once again, this does not reflect a lack of interest (Ichou, 2010), but rather a sense of illegitimacy and/or a willingness to trust the school system. They submit to the verdicts of the education authorities via teachers, education advisers, head teachers and, much more rarely, careers guidance counsellors. These individuals are frequently deemed to be the most competent and best placed to judge what is best for their child:


The eldest [of my daughters], initially, she absolutely wanted to go into horse riding after completing lower secondary school. I told her, “go for it, get all the information, sign up for it, do your thing, I won’t interfere at all”. And I think it was the education adviser who had a long talk with her and told her: “if you go to a horse-riding school, you’ll start very low down, it will be hard work, getting up very early every morning, working in smelly conditions…”. So she thought about it, and then she wasn’t quite so sure. She made an appointment to see the head teacher, explained that she didn’t know what to do, and he got her a place at Dugny, and ever since she has been really happy. She got her lower secondary certificate, she got her baccalauréat, and she’s really happy with what she’s doing
(female, age 46, nursery-school assistant, lower secondary vocational certificate, Martinican origin, Épinay-sur-Seine)

63This first form of deference, to the school, is very frequently combined with the second form of deference, to the child, although it is not always easy to identify which factors are causes and which are consequences of the greater distance between these families and the school system. Students’ considerable leeway to make decisions about their educational future can be likened to a family system of delegation. This degree of self-determination is linked to several factors that sometimes act in unison. They are educational when parents lack experience and skills or a sense of legitimacy in this realm; they are cultural when non-French-speaking parents are cut off from the school system by linguistic obstacles. The question of language has not been explored further, as we do not have the relevant data concerning the language(s) spoken at home. Nevertheless, we may suppose that, like the other dimensions considered, the question of the languages spoken by parents is an important one. A very clear distinction can be made between immigrant parents who have been in France for many years, notably those originating from former French colonies, and especially those who attended school in France, and more recent immigrants who have no knowledge or prior experience of the French language. [15]

64With respect more specifically to the “Sciences Po programme”, all the families surveyed, but especially those of immigrant origin, had a rather vague idea of the content, principles and expectations of this project (Oberti et al., 2009), with parents deferring once again to their children. While they perceive the presence of Sciences Po in their children’s schools positively and associate it with programmes aimed at “educational regeneration” and “cultural outreach”, the overall goals of the project remains opaque. A number of parents emphasized the more demanding academic supervision that was involved, as well as the opportunities for trips abroad, visits outside the Seine-Saint-Denis département and meetings with professionals, but they rarely made the link between the programme and its primary objective – to offer students the possibility of a place at Sciences Po.


They do lots of things, travelling and so on. For me, when I was young, that was my dream, to travel. I always said, “later on, I’ll go travelling”. In fact, I still haven’t done it, but it’s good that she can do it, though.
(female, age 36, cleaner, lower secondary vocational certificate, Algerian origin, Bondy)


The visits, they’re stimulating visits, you know, and then afterwards they’ve got a project to work on. So that motivates them. They’ve always got something to do.
(female, age 45, childminder, primary school certificate, Algerian origin, Bondy)

The specific profile of families of Asian and Turkish origin

67So in some cases, attitudes to school among immigrant families are different from those held by families of French origin. Is it possible to identify specific types of behaviours within each of these origin groups? An initial remark in this respect concerns mixed households where at least one parent was born in France: these families differ the least from the mainstream group, as also shown by Caille (2007) with regard to the aspirations of lycée students. Similarly, families originating from the French overseas territories, even when their attitudes differ from those of French-origin families, nevertheless remain closer to the mainstream group than the other migrant groups.

68Two groups stand out in particular with respect to families of French origin: immigrant households of Asian and of Turkish origin. Immigrants of Asian origin differ most often from the mainstream group (for 8 out of 10 variables); however, the differences are typically greatest in cases where families of Turkish origin differ from French-origin families. These two immigrant groups also exhibit educational trajectories that are highly specific at national level (Brinbaum et al., 2012; Ichou, 2013) and diametrically opposed: while students of Asian origin obtain good or even excellent results at school and go on to selective higher-education courses, those of Turkish origin tend to be characterized by below-average results (Caille and Lemaire, 2009) and shorter educational trajectories (Silberman and Fournier, 2006; Brinbaum et al., 2012). The educational excellence of Asian immigrants in the United States is the subject of an extensive literature that is not always readily applicable to France, as the two national contexts are very different. Nevertheless, certain explanatory elements put forward by most authors are relevant here: first of all, this group believes strongly in education (Costigan et al., 2010; Francis and Archer, 2005), which is reflected not by the direct involvement of parents in school life or in the supervision of learning (Mau, 1997) but rather by extremely high expectations in terms of results (Louie, 2001), which are sometimes also expressed by teachers (Xie and Hsin, 2013). Asian families also place great importance on good behaviour, a strong work ethic, and perseverance, all of which encourage a disciplined attitude to school, especially for those from modest backgrounds (Domina, 2005).

69These observations are consistent with the results presented here, as Asian families are the group with the highest educational aspirations and that participates least in school life and in the supervision of learning at home. The high educational ambitions in families of Asian origin are very much inherited and passed on by each generation (Caille, 2007). Among students from immigrant families, it is those of Asian origin that are closest to non-immigrant families in terms of the proportion who choose a general (i.e. more academic) baccalauréat over a occupational or technological baccalauréat and who are the most likely to go on to preparatory classes (classes préparatoires) for the elite grandes écoles (and to refuse a less prestigious technical track). These results point to what is probably a fundamental driving force of educational success among children of Asian origin, as previously highlighted by American (Hao and Bonstead-Bruns, 1998) and British studies (Modood, 2004): the conjunction of parents’ high educational aspirations and the fact that these aspirations are passed on to their children produces a high degree of intergenerational consistency in academic expectations. The opposite situation can be observed for children of Turkish immigrants, who are the group least likely to envisage a general baccalauréat, and who are even less likely to go on to classes préparatoires (Caille, 2007). In other words, the dissonance between parents’ educational ambitions and those of their children appears to be greater in families of Turkish origin.

70It seems that this contrast in the educational trajectories and aspirations of children from these two groups cannot be explained by a fundamentally different relationship with the French language in these families, as these are the two immigrant groups where parents least often speak French with their children, whether exclusively or in combination with their mother tongue (Tribalat, 1995; Simon, 1997; Condon and Régnard, 2010). Turkish and, to a lesser extent, Asian immigrants are also characterized by higher levels of residential segregation than the other immigrant groups in the Paris region (Préteceille, 2009). This correspondence between educational trajectories, relationship to the school system and the degree of segregation would benefit from additional research in order to explain how the segregational dimension affects these two groups differently. Compared with the United States, we in France do not have the kind of surveys necessary to precisely evaluate the effects of students’ neighbourhood of residence on their relationship with school (and that of their parents) and their educational trajectories, especially when focusing on differences related to migration background. Contexts of high residential segregation or, conversely, of broad social diversity do not necessarily produce the same effects for all immigrant groups. [16] A study conducted in Bordeaux, for example, shows an intense collective structuring of the Turkish community based on community resources more conducive to accessing vocational rather than selective tracks. Local community networks, whose development is fostered by the high geographical concentration of their members, provide jobs within the community and separate young Turks from other “suburban youths” (Armagnague, 2010). Here, our questionnaire shows its limitations: for example, more specific questions on the way in which parents supervise schoolwork and combine it with other domestic responsibilities would have been useful, as would have been questions on time use, time spent outside the home, and the use of local spaces.


71Migration background makes a difference to families’ relationships with the school system. There are two areas in particular where these differences stand out most clearly: compared to families of French origin from similar social backgrounds residing in the neighbourhoods studied, immigrant parents make greater use of local community educational support and have significantly higher educational aspirations for their children. Whatever the educational effects of this specific relationship with the school system, these results challenge the notion that, in these neighbourhoods, immigrant families exhibit little interest or ambition when it comes to their children’s education. Furthermore, in some other respects, the immigrant families in these working-class neighbourhoods are not significantly different from non-immigrant families.

72Our results also demonstrate the heterogeneity of the “immigrant” category and, consequently, the benefits of using a categorization of migration background that is as precise as possible in order to avoid unduly generalizing or truncating the social phenomena studied. Indeed, it is those groups that are least populous and therefore typically also least often studied (families of Turkish and Asian origin) whose attitudes to school and education differed most significantly from those of families from the mainstream group. In many respects, the Turkish and Asian families studied shared features in common: they are among the least active in terms of school life and supervising schoolwork at home. If we were to choose just one specific feature of the educational practices of these two groups, we would emphasize the extremely frequent use of local community support to manage children’s school life by families of Turkish origin on the one hand, and the particularly strong educational aspirations of parents of Asian origin on the other. The case of Asian students, whose parents seldom become involved in their education, either within the school or at home, and yet who obtain high levels of educational success, suggests that parental involvement – or at least parental involvement as measured by the survey questionnaire – may not be a determining factor of children’s educational attainment.

73Three areas for further research could usefully extend our work. First, the complexity of attitudes and educational practices cannot be fully explored by a single questionnaire (Lahire, 1995; Lareau, 2003), even when complemented by interviews. The same responses may refer to different practices and representations, and the “social desirability bias” that very frequently comes into play among working-class respondents may elicit responses that reflect what should be the case rather than what actually is the case. For these reasons, ethnographic observations should be used more extensively in order to study immigrant families’ relationships with the school system, in all their complexity.

74Second, our data did not allow us to study the effects of different learning practices on students’ educational trajectories, which would require a longitudinal study taking account of variations stemming from the social and urban context.

75Third, why is it that, for similar social backgrounds, different migration backgrounds are associated with certain types of relationship with the school system rather than others? To provide definitive answers to this difficult question, it would be necessary to evaluate the influence of social position and educational level in the country of origin – often very poorly measured in surveys – together with factors such as urban or rural background, migration history (departure and settlement conditions, reason for departure, resources mobilized, type of link with the country of origin), the relationship between France and the country of origin (colonial past, slavery, pacified or conflictual relations), residential and educational segregation, experiences of racism and reactions to discrimination, and, lastly, cultural phenomena. Qualitative studies (Zeroulou, 1988; Laacher, 1990; Sayad, 1999; Santelli, 2001) and, more recently, quantitative studies (Feliciano, 2005; Ichou, 2013, 2014) suggest that the experiences and social properties of immigrants prior to migration, i.e. in their country of origin, are key to understanding their dispositions, their trajectories and those of their children in France. Pursuing this research perspective calls for interdisciplinary collaboration, which is still rather tentative at present, and large-scale survey-based tools. Only research that involves both sociologists and anthropologists can successfully move beyond the existing barriers that tend to allocate the study of migrants in France to sociologists and, in the vast majority of cases, the study of migrants in their countries of origin to ethnologists. [17] Ethnological knowledge and approaches are especially valuable in this area, ensuring that social and cultural differences do not go unseen, either among migrants or between migrants and non-migrants. In the context of France, they serve to deepen our understanding of how pre-migratory experiences and characteristics, reinterpreted and transformed, exert their effects. Regarding the cultural dimension of these experiences, it is one thing to characterize groups according to their language(s), moral codes, customs, religion, family structures, values, ideas and representations; it is quite another to evaluate intergenerational transmission within the groups and its effects on behaviour, especially in the context of a migratory process. It is therefore important to distinguish between aspects that are doubtless linked to the persistence of transmitted cultural models and those that result from adaptation to a new socioeconomic and urban environment (Patterson, 2000). It is vital to understand these mechanisms if we wish to avoid the pitfalls of essentializing “ethnocultural origins” and interpreting behaviour in the host country in terms of a static vision of “cultural” characteristics associated with these origins (Patterson, 2010).


Our special thanks go to Mireille Clémençon, Patrick Simon, Hugues Lagrange, Marie Duru-Bellat and Edmond Préteceille for rereading this article and giving us their advice and opinions. We are also grateful to the participants of INED’s “International Migrations and Minorities” seminar, where a previous version of this paper was presented. Finally, we would like to thank the editors of the journal, together with the three anonymous reviewers, whose remarks and suggestions helped us to improve this text.
Table A.1

Distribution of independent variables used in the OSC survey

Table A.1
Variable Category Frequency (%) Number Parents’ SOC* Very advantaged 8.0 95 Advantaged 25.5 304 Disadvantaged 12.7 151 Very disadvantaged 53.8 641 Father’s education No qualifications 31.4 374 Below baccalauréat 29.0 345 Baccalauréat or higher 25.0 298 Not known 14.6 174 Mother’s qualifications No qualifications 33.9 404 Below baccalauréat 30.6 364 Baccalauréat or higher 28.6 340 Not known 7.0 83 Family situation Child lives with both parents 72.2 860 Other family situations 27.8 331 Parents’ employment status Both parents are employed 44.4 529 One parent is employed 39.1 466 Neither parent is employed 16.5 196 Child’s number of siblings 1 26.0 310 2 31.6 376 3 20.3 242 4 11.1 132 5 6.0 71 6 5.0 60 Child’s year group First year in lycée 44.1 525 Second year in lycée 31.6 376 Final year in lycée 24.3 290 Child’s lycée Saint-Ouen 18.9 225 Épinay-sur-Seine 27.7 330 Clichy-sous-Bois 14.6 174 Bondy 38.8 462

Distribution of independent variables used in the OSC survey

Source: OSC survey.
Table A.2

Distribution of mothers’ educational levels by migration background (%)*

Table A.2
Mother’s migration background No qualifications Below baccalauréat Baccalauréat or higher Not known Total Number Metropolitan France 8 42 48 3 100 232 French overseas territories 32 40 20 8 100 87 Europe 44 37 17 2 100 54 Asia 42 18 31 9 100 78 Sahel 52 25 10 13 100 61 Maghreb 51 25 17 6 100 324 Other African countries 24 23 45 8 100 91 Turkey 67 23 5 5 100 57 Mixed (one French parent) 21 42 37 0 100 78 Mixed (no French parents) 23 33 40 3 100 46 Other 13 25 36 25 100 83 Total 34 31 29 7 100 1,191

Distribution of mothers’ educational levels by migration background (%)*

* The categories for the SOC variable are coded as followed: “very advantaged” covers families where both parents have managerial roles or jobs in the higher intellectual occupations or intermediate occupations; “advantaged” contains families where only one parent belongs to one of these occupational categories; “disadvantaged” refers to families where one parent is a manual or clerical worker; “very disadvantaged” designates families where both parents are manual or clerical workers.
Source: OSC survey.


  • [*]
    Sciences Po – OSC; INED; CREST; Nuffield College.
  • [**]
    Sciences Po – OSC.
  • [***]
    As we have a separate category for children with parents from the French overseas départements (See Section II), unless otherwise stated, “French origin” refers to children whose parents reported metropolitan France (mainland France and Corsica) as their country of origin.
  • [1]
    For example, it is not possible to obtain detailed census data concerning nationality for individual infra-communal census zones (îlots regroupés pour l’information statistique, IRIS) as defined in 2000, which, in dense urban areas, generally comprise a number of city blocks with a total population of around 2,000. These data have always been, and continue to be, considered as “sensitive”.
  • [2]
    In fact, this survey provides information concerning their family’s migration history, i.e. the migration background of their parents, as most of these children were born in France. For reasons of convenience, we shall hereafter use the expression “migration background” when referring to their family migration history.
  • [3]
    For a detailed presentation of the survey and the programmes in question, see Oberti et al. (2009, pp. 108–109).
  • [4]
    The académie de Créteil covers the east of the Paris region (Île-de-France), comprising the départements of Seine-et-Marne, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne.
  • [5]
    The questionnaire return rate varied from school to school, ranging from 50% in one to just 20% in another.
  • [6]
    Before grouping these three questions within the same variable, we verified their internal consistency by calculating Cronbach’s alpha, which was above 0.7 (0.73), therefore justifying their combination.
  • [7]
    These data are corroborated by estimates based on the first names of students in the surveyed lycées (see Felouzis (2003) and Lagrange (2006) for more elaborate examples of this method). According to this method, 22% of students attending the lycée in Clichy-sous-Bois and 28.7% of those at the lycée in Épinay-sur-Seine were of French or European background. The congruence of these results with those of the OSC survey is remarkable and in both cases shows a particularly high concentration of students whose parents’ country of origin is not metropolitan France.
  • [8]
    The power of a statistical test is the probability of correctly rejecting a null hypothesis when it is false (Cohen, 1988). The use of many categories of migration background each containing few individuals weakens the statistical power. In other words, the probability of what statisticians call a “type II” error increases. We therefore voluntarily take the risk of incorrectly concluding that migration background has no proven effect on the relationship with the school system, although such an effect may indeed exist.
  • [9]
    The bootstrap method is not based on the restrictive hypotheses adopted, often implicitly, by the standard statistical tests. The calculation of standard errors using bootstraps tends to widen the confidence intervals for the estimated parameters. The detection of effects of one variable on another is therefore more robust, in particular with samples of limited size (Fox, 2008).
  • [10]
    When the dependent variable was dichotomous, two nested binary logistic regression models were used. When the dependent variable was polytomous, two multinomial logistic regression models were used instead.
  • [11]
    The proportion of stay-at-home mothers is particularly high among families of Turkish origin (72%) compared to other families of both immigrant and non-immigrant origin: 49% for families of Asian origin, 47% for those of Maghrebi origin, 29% for those of Sahelian origin, and just 8% for families reporting French origin.
  • [12]
    Bourdieu’s analysis of the upwardly mobile petite bourgeoisie is heuristic for interpreting immigrants’ trajectories: “if, in other words, certain categories of agents can overestimate their chances [of success, particularly at school] and in the process actually augment them, it is because the dispositions tend to reproduce not the particular social position of which they are the product but rather the slope, at the point considered, of the individual or collective social trajectory. More specifically, dispositions towards the future and, consequently, reproduction strategies depend not only on the synchronically defined position of the class and of the individual within this class but also on the slope of the collective trajectory of the group to which the individual belongs […] and, secondarily, on the slope of an individual’s specific trajectory…” (Bourdieu, 1974, p. 19).
  • [13]
    This is also true within a given group of immigrants, as demonstrated by Claire Schiff (2008) with regard to the distinction between “blédards” (new arrivals from the Maghreb region) and “banlieusards” (those who have grown up in the Paris suburbs) with respect to attitudes to school, career aspirations and gender relations.
  • [14]
    This project involves a partnership agreement between Sciences Po Paris and a lycée in a priority education area (zone d’éducation prioritaire, ZEP) that enables students who attend special workshops in the school to qualify for a specific Sciences Po admissions procedure. At the time of the survey, the students were preparing a press kit, and candidates who passed this first stage were then invited to an interview to assess their skills and motivation. For a detailed presentation of the programme at that time, see Oberti et al. (2009).
  • [15]
    Some 3% of Turkish immigrant women reported having a good or very good level of French when they arrived in France, rising to 4% for Portuguese women and 8% for Southeast Asian women. This compares with 44% of Algerian women, 48% of Sahelian women and 73% of women from West or Central Africa (Condon and Régnard, 2010).
  • [16]
    An author such as Rosenbaum (1991, 1995) focuses, for example, on the importance of role models and middle-class norms as “positive” effects on households that took part in the Gautreaux housing desegregation project in the United States. This programme involved helping households to leave a poor, ethnically and racially homogeneous neighbourhood in favour of a more advantaged, mixed neighbourhood.
  • [17]
    In the more specific fields of urban anthropology and urban ethnology, studies concerning immigrants in France and immigration in general are more numerous and date back further (Raulin, 2007).

This article provides an empirical analysis of immigrant families’ relationship with the school system in working-class suburbs of Paris. The findings are based on a multivariate analysis of a questionnaire survey (N = 1,191) as well as semi-structured interviews conducted with parents of students in four high schools in the Seine-Saint-Denis département. We show that a migration background shapes parents’ relationship with the school system. Stronger community educational support and higher educational aspirations are observed among immigrant parents compared to native parents of the same social backgrounds living in the same neighbourhoods. Among immigrant families, parents from Turkey and Asia differ most with respect to native parents in their relationship with the school system. The former tend to turn much more often to their local community for educational support, while the latter are characterized by especially high educational aspirations. These findings call for future systematic analyses of migrants’ pre-migration experiences and characteristics in order to shed light on their subsequent trajectories and attitudes in the country of immigration.


  • relationship with the school system
  • working-class neighbourhoods
  • immigrants and children of immigrants
  • community educational support
  • educational aspirations

Le rapport à l’école des familles déclarant une origine immigrée: enquête dans quatre lycées de la banlieue populaire

Cet article propose une analyse empirique du rapport à l’école des familles immigrées résidant dans des communes populaires de la périphérie parisienne. Les résultats se fondent sur l’analyse multivariée d’une enquête par questionnaires (N = 1 191) ainsi que sur l’exploitation d’entretiens semi-directifs réalisés auprès des parents des élèves de quatre lycées du département de Seine-Saint-Denis. Nous montrons que l’origine migratoire fait des différences dans le rapport à l’école. C’est en particulier le cas pour la plus forte entraide éducative locale et les plus hautes aspirations scolaires des parents immigrés par rapport aux parents natifs de mêmes milieux sociaux résidant dans les mêmes quartiers. Parmi les familles immigrées, ce sont les parents originaires de Turquie et d’Asie pour qui le rapport à l’école diffère le plus de celui des parents natifs. Les premières ont davantage recours à l’entraide éducative de proximité, alors que les secondes sont caractérisées par des aspirations scolaires nettement plus élevées. Ces résultats militent pour une analyse plus systématique des caractéristiques et des expériences des migrants dans le pays d’origine pour éclairer leurs trajectoires et attitudes dans le pays d’immigration.


Las relaciones con la escuela de las familias que se declaran inmigradas: una encuesta en cuatro institutos de suburbios populares

Este artículo propone un análisis empírico de las relaciones que las familias inmigradas residentes en la periferia popular de Paris mantienen con la escuela. Los resultados proceden de un análisis multivariado de una encuesta por cuestionario (n=1191) y de la explotación de entrevistas semi-directivas realizadas con padres de alumnos de cuatro institutos del departamento de Seine-Saint-Denis. Demostramos que el origen migratorio influye sobre las relaciones con la escuela. Así, el recurso a la ayuda educativa a nivel local y las aspiraciones escolares son más fuertes en los padres inmigrados que en los padres nativos pertenecientes a los mismos medios sociales y residiendo en los mismos barrios. Entre las familias inmigradas, son los padres originarios de Turquía y de Asia los que difieren más en las relaciones con la escuela respecto a los nativos. Los primeros recurren más frecuentemente a la ayuda educativa de proximidad mientras que los segundos manifiestan aspiraciones escolares más elevadas. Estos resultados abogan por un análisis más sistemático de las características y de las experiencias de los inmigrantes en el país de origen a fin de comprender mejor sus trayectorias y sus actitudes en el país de inmigración.
Translated by Oliver Waine.


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Mathieu Ichou [*]
Nuffield College, New Road, Oxford, OX1 1NF, United Kingdom
  • [*]
    Sciences Po – OSC; INED; CREST; Nuffield College.
Marco Oberti [**]
  • [**]
    Sciences Po – OSC.
Translated by
Oliver Waine
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