Vulnerable groups in education and training

Problem statement

There is a wide disparity in educational opportunities and outcomes across but also within EU Member States and regions. Also, there is a concentration of educational disadvantages in particular localities within many regions and cities where cycles of disadvantage become entrenched. Access to learning opportunities, success at school and chances of higher education and further learning all remain socially and spatially divided across the EU. In many cases, education systems in Member States make things worse – through unequal funding and resources and through less rewarding and enriching experiences of learning for different target groups. All European education systems are, to a greater or lesser extent, marked by inequalities. Socioeconomic background, disability, ethnic or migrant status, gender, geographic location and other factors still impact strongly on people’s educational opportunities, learning experiences and educational outcomes. Whole social groups or sub-sets of the population persistently achieve less well in education – often despite the presence of policy initiatives that are designed to redress these inequities.

Implications for education

These disparities reflect, and compound, wider inequalities. They have severe consequences for individuals, for the economy and for social cohesion. Policies to remedy these disparities are needed. Recent OECD [1] and other evidence [2] shows that equity in education is compatible with strong learning outcomes and high performance. It also shows that the highest-performing countries allocate educational resources more equitably among advantaged and disadvantaged schools. Systems which uphold high standards of quality for all, which foster personalised, inclusive approaches, which support early intervention and which target disadvantaged learners in particular, can be powerful drivers in fostering social inclusion.


There is wide variation between different Member States in how successful they are at addressing the problem, suggesting that some education systems are much more inclusive and equitable than others. The answers as to which processes should be implemented to reach the goals of inclusion have to be specific to each education system. Ways of including the educational staff in building and nurturing inclusive school-cultures have to be developed on the national, regional and local levels. If inclusion is to happen, pre-service and in-service teacher education must be efficient [3]. Another way in which the situation of vulnerable groups can be improved is to avoid segregated schools. ‘Controlled choice’ is one of the few strategies that seems to work in balancing parents‘ wishes to choose a  school for their children and the political goal to counter segregation [4]. In a scheme of ‘Controlled choice’ the school authority applies a carefully developed plan based on social indicators and computer algorithms to assign each student to one of the three indicated favourite schools. Together with targeted support for pupils with higher needs there are convincing examples that the two can produce enhanced academic outcomes. The more coherent countries will be in pursuing the goals of inclusion and high quality on different policy levels and with different stakeholder groups, the more successful they will be in their efforts.

[1] OECD, ‘PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity – giving every student the chance to succeed’, V.2, OECD Publishing, 2013. doi:10.1787/9789264201132-en.

[2] E.g. Schraad-Tischler, D.; Kroll, C., Social Justice in the EU – A Cross-national Comparison. Social Inclusion Monitor Europe (SIM) – Index Report, 2014. PDF file

[3] Joyce, B.; Showers, B., ‘Student Achievement through Staff Development’, National College for School Leadership, 2003. PDF file

[4] Kahlenberg, R. D., ‘Combating School Segregation in the United States’. In: Bekker, J.; Denessen, E.; Pteres, D.; Walraven, G., (eds), International perspectives on countering school segregation, Antwerp & Apeldoorn, Garant, 2011, pp. 13-32.