Emerging segregation in schools in Iceland

By on 16.10.2018 in Research findings
Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir Photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson

Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir
Photo: Kristinn Ingvarsson

The Nordic model seems to be in trouble in Iceland. The democratic school for all, where everybody is supposed to have equal rights and opportunities, is challenged by segregation trends. Differences in schools’ economical or cultural capital are becoming increasingly common.

A school is no longer just a school, but a trademark. To attract the ‘right kind’ of students, the schools need to stand out. They need to specialize and create a distinct profile for the consumers, a trademark.

“Accordingly, you need to attract the consumers that give you the best image, that is, the most advantaged students. This is what happens in the process of marketization”, JustEd Researcher Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir explains.

Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir and her research group at the University of Iceland are studying how the marketization of schools in Iceland is related to segregation trends. In the 70’s and 80’s the aim was to develop a more democratic, equitable school in Iceland – a home for all kinds of people. This ideal is now being challenged.

“We are currently struggling with different policies concerning marketization and individualization that go against the core principals of democratic and social cohesion. I am exploring these contradictive policies along with Auður Magndís Auðardóttir who is working on this as her PhD-project. We explore how these policies shape the schooling in Iceland. Who is benefiting from marketization and individualization, how does the background of pupils and parents matter in that perspective and how is the idea of school’s quality shaped and fabricated?” Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir says.


Certain students are excluded

Educational values are rapidly changing into market-based values. School choice is a kind of consumption:

“You commercialize yourself as a student by choosing the right school. You brand yourself and create your own trademark. Exactly what you are learning is not the main thing – it is what people think you are learning. It is the trademark that you are connected with.” The same brand idea goes for the schools. If the school has a lot of advantaged students it is much easier to create a good trademark. The students are contributing with cultural capital. “Let’s say you have been studying music since you were six years old, and you start upper secondary school at 16. Then you have already created the kind of cultural capital that boosts the trademark and capital of the school”, says Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir.

In the Reykjavik metropolitan area, there are certain schools that get most of the applications and they just choose the most advantaged students. On the other end of the spectrum, there are schools that do not have any choices at all and receive the majority of students who are disadvantaged in many aspects. Most of the schools are searching for upper middle class pupils or pupils with a good profile for their school. Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir means that this implies that pupils with special needs or behavioral problems are being excluded, or are in danger of exclusion or isolation:

“The schools that do not have the option of choosing their pupils end up with the pupils that the high-profile schools reject. There you can see the segregation effects.”

In Iceland, these are all public schools but because of governing systems based on the rules of market values, you automatically create a marketized system within the public system:

“Every student can in theory choose their schools but since some popular schools receive so many applications, they get to choose the students with the best background. It is just like an open market. There are schools that can choose the best and the rest goes to the other schools.”


Social class and ethnicity

In the research study, Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir and her team are focusing on the schools that have the least or the most market value in terms of popularity. They are mainly looking at schools that are considered elitist and their opposites – schools that are struggling with disadvantages. The team is conducting in-depth interviews with parents and students at upper secondary schools, and with the parents of younger kids in the lower compulsory schools.

“We try to grasp their backgrounds and social history. We also collect information about geography and geometry of the school area, in terms of social class and ethnicity.”

The research findings show more segregation in terms of social class and ethnicity in school zones in the Reykjavik metropolitan area. Some schools have a lot of concentration of cultural capital in terms of highly educated parents and pupils with valuable cultural abilities. Then there are other schools that have an excess of resources in terms of economical capital, with pupils representing very rich families. On the other end, there are the disadvantaged schools.

“When looking into these polarized schools, if I can find a difference in terms of social class or ethnicity in the students’ background, then I can clearly say that we have a social class issue in Iceland. It is difficult to discuss social class in Iceland because people think we do not have any social class issues. This is also part of trying to get the attention for this kind of topics – it is very relevant.”

The team is doing a historical analysis, tracing the elements 20 years back.

“For the last 20 years, there have been disadvantaged areas emerging, because of open school choice. Advantaged parents can choose freely on all levels in what school they put their child and have the economic capital to choose the ‘right’ neighborhood. Majority of school choices are based on residential choices. However, everybody can ask for open enrolment in another school but the in- and outflow is similar in all school zones except for the ones that have the highest ratio of economically disadvantaged students intersecting with immigrant background. The open school choice policies then amplify the segregation effects from the residential choices.”


Nordic model at risk

Iceland has historically been quite isolated in terms of globalization and immigration flow. Since 2014 there has however, been big groups of refugees arriving in Iceland.

“Iceland is changing a lot and getting more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. We can therefore see a strong segregated effect in our data in terms of ethnicity. We can almost call it ‘a white flight or native flight from certain schools’. We see the same trends as in Sweden, not as extreme – but we are on the same track.”

The Nordic welfare system has traditionally been a basis for a strong equitable society, but now neoliberal policies within the welfare and educational systems are putting the Nordic model at risk.

“It is a driving force towards a more individualistic approach and against democratic social cohesion. We have to reconsider these policies. Research from all over the world shows exactly the same thing – that these policies intensify segregation and inequality, and is doing a lot of damage to the Nordic welfare system.”

Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir is proclaiming the need for policies that secure diverse schools in all areas in terms of social class and ethnicity.

“We cannot allow it to happen that we have groups that are isolated in terms of religion, ethnicity, special needs and social class. Then we are just going back to the 60’s again. One of the main aims of schooling is to learn to live together, as a society. That aim is actually corrupted”, Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir concludes.


NAME: Berglind Rós Magnúsdóttir

TITLE: Associate Professor at the University of Iceland

PLACE OF BIRTH: 20 May 1973 in Siglufjörður, Iceland

LIVING IN: Reykjavík (on and off since 1995 with an important stops in the Ithaca US and Cambridge UK and teaching periods in the north of Iceland)

– Special adviser to the Minister of Education (2009-2011)
– Equal opportunity officer at the University of Iceland (2003-2005)
– Teaching at the compulsory school level (1992-1995 and 1999-2001)

She has worked in academia since 2003 and has been politically involved in education since 2009.

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Her current research is on globalization, marketization, and differentiation in the Icelandic education system and its impact on social justice, parental choices and practices, teachers’ professionalism, educational quality and in-/exclusion in education.

HOBBIES: Singing in a choir, dancing tango, spending time in the rural north of Iceland at her cottage in Hraun where she grew up

FAVORITE FOOD AND BEVERAGE: Grilled lobster with a glass of Chablis


Auðardóttir, A. M., & Magnúsdóttir, B. R. (forthcoming). “It is of course not a cross-section of society that lives here”: Bourdieusian exploration of a social class segregation in the Reykjavik metropolitan area 1997-2016. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research.

Magnúsdóttir, B. R. (2018). Differentiation in middle-class identities, values and responses: Parental Choice in a Working-Class, Multi-Ethnic School. In F. J. Levine, L. D. Hill, E. L. Baker, Y. C. Cheng, L. Ebersöhn, O. K. Lee, & S. Lindblom-Ylanne (Eds.), World Education Research Yearbook. New York: Routledge.

Magnúsdóttir, B. R. & Gísladóttir, H. H. (2017). “Then it is crucial to get some external person with respectability to the meetings”: Mothering practices and collaboration with teachers and professionals to secure their autistic children’s schooling and professional services – Bourdieusian class analysis. Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun. netla.hi.is/greinar/2017/ryn/08.pdf

Dýrfjörð, K., & Magnúsdóttir, B. R. (2016). Privatization of the early childhood education in Iceland. Research in Comparative and International Education 11(1), 80-97. doi:10.1177/1745499916631062


Tags: , , ,

About the Author

About the Author: Charlotta Järf is in charge of the communications and marketing activities for JustEd, The Nordic Centre of Excellence, an international research network with 14 partner universities in 8 countries. With ten years of professional experience in Communications and Marketing, and five years as a TV, radio and newspaper journalist, Charlotta has a practical set of skills in strategical communications, PR, social media, graphic design, video and content production. .


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Comments are closed.