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Tracking in secondary schools increases social inequalities

In an article about inequality in the Swiss education systems in the series Social Change in Switzerland, Georges Felouzis and Samuel Charmillot compare cantons (districts) based on students’ results as measured by PISA in 2003 and 2012. They observe that grouping pupils into different tracks reduces equality of opportunity, without actually improving performance.

The organisation of compulsory secondary education has been the subject of heated controversy in several Swiss cantons. The debate opposes supporters of common core curriculum and advocates of tracking students by ability. In this debate, the question of effectiveness, measured by pupils' results, is often set against the question of equal opportunities, i.e. allowing children from less advantaged backgrounds to have access to higher qualifications.

Georges Felouzis and Samuel Charmillot provide a comparison across time and space using an oversampling of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Their analysis of education systems in fifteen cantons in 2003 and 2012 demonstrates that systems opting for early ability tracking are not the most effective: in those cantons, maths results at the end of compulsory schooling were below the Swiss average. On the other hand, the cantons with the best results are those with less tracking, making for more equal opportunities.

More equal access to opportunities alone does not guarantee above-average results. However, observation of the developments in education systems in different cantons between 2003 and 2012 can indicate whether the socioeconomic profile of higher-achieving pupils has changed according to individual canton reforms. The authors show that the proportion of pupils with good results coming from less advantaged backgrounds decreased in cantons which had resorted increasingly to tracking pupils by ability. In contrast, equality increased in cantons which had opted to move away from tracking, offering better educational prospects for pupils from all backgrounds.

>> Georges Felouzis and Samuel Charmillot (2017). Les inégalités scolaires en Suisse / Schulische Ungleichheit in der Schweiz. Social Change in Switerland No 8. Retrieved from

Contact: Georges Felouzis, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, University of Geneva, Tel. 022 379 90 21,

The series Social Change in Switzerland documents the evolution of Switzerland’s social structure. It is edited by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences FORS, the Life Course and Inequalities Research Centre of the University of Lausanne LINES , and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives (NCCR LIVES). The aim is to monitor change in employment, family, income, mobility, voting, or gender in Switzerland. Based on cutting edge empirical research, the series targets a wider audience than just academic experts.