School becomes a safe haven in disadvantaged areas

Until now, evidence has suggested that problems prevalent in troubled neighbourhoods also manifest themselves at school. However, new research shows that democratic schools in under-privileged areas make pupils feel safe and respected and that they even look forward to going there. School becomes a safe haven in an otherwise troubled existence. On Wednesday, Håkan Stattin, professor of psychology at Örebro University, Sweden, presented findings from the project Seven Schools to teachers at the Vivalla school in Örebro.

“These are awesome findings, worth pondering over. They show how important democracy at school is,” says Håkan Stattin.

He describes a democratic school as a school where pupils have a sense of worth and feel respected; where they are listened to, where they can influence what happens and feel that the adults want what is best for them.

Seven schools over four years

The researchers have over a period of four years studied seven schools in Örebro, one of which was the Vivalla school, which is in one of Örebro’s more disadvantaged areas. Comparisons have been made between schools in more privileged areas and schools in disadvantaged areas. Pupils have answered questions relating to their sense of security, influence, teacher-pupil relations, threats, and bullying in order for researchers to find out to what degree the pupils are happy at school.

The results show that youths in disadvantaged areas are more positive to school and that they find school to be more democratic than do their peers in more privileged areas. Youths in disadvantaged areas are more contented and have a better relationship with their teachers. More often than other youths in the study they are looking forward to going back to school during weekends and holidays.

“These are really interesting results and point to a new way of thinking. It contradicts all previous research which claims that problems in troubled areas “leak into” schools and that youths in the disadvantaged areas bring their bad experiences from the neighbourhood and their home environment to school. We are showing that that is not necessarily the case,” says Håkan Stattin.

“By ‘working democratically,’ schools can prevent problems in disadvantaged areas from finding their way in and instead create opportunities for the school to become a safe haven for the pupils. One should also note that harassment, threats and bullying are not more frequent in the schools in under-privileged areas than in the schools in the more affluent parts of town,” says Håkan Stattin.

Perform better when happy

“Our research shows that since youths in under-privileged areas are treated in a democratic fashion, they are not projecting their negative feelings onto the school. Instead, a democratic organisation at school provides a contrast to problematic circumstances in the neighbourhood. School becomes a safe place in life, where they feel happy and respected.”

“Young people who are happy at school have a better success rate than those who are not. That is why democracy at school is such a tremendously important issue,” concludes Håkan Stattin.

Text: Linda Harradine
Translation: Charlotta Hambre-Knight
Photo: Hans Jonsson