In 2021, EUI Economics Professor Sule Alan launched the five-year ERC advanced grant project, Social Inclusion and the Political Economy of Education: Building Social Capital in Ethnic Diversity. Leveraging the power of public education, the overarching goal of this research is to offer evidence-informed policy actions to help build ethnically diverse communities characterised by tolerance and inclusion rather than conflict and segregation.
Specifically, the project's research team observes and assesses the effects of educational interventions in schools which host significant numbers of refugee children. The interventions include classes and extracurricular programmes implemented to cultivate tolerance and mitigate and prevent conflict.
We asked Alan, Principal Investigator of the project, who has recently returned from fieldwork, for an update on the research and findings.
Where is this project located, and who are you working with?
The fieldwork is situated in southeast Turkey, in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey. My institutional partner for the ERC project is Bilkent University. Our partner on the ground is the Diyarbakir Local Education Authority; they advertised the project and received applications from 65 schools to take part. Diyarbakir hosts a large number of Syrian refugees of mainly Kurdish ethnicity and the project schools have varying numbers of refugee students registered. The research team includes myself, ten experienced academic assistants, and about 30 university students whom we recruited from the local university (Dicle University) to work with us in these schools.
Can you describe the basic features of the research?
The underlying theory for this project, including the design of the intervention, draws on findings from social psychology, psychology, peace/conflict studies and education. We use Randomised Controlled Trials (the gold standard in behavioural economics) to evaluate the outcomes.
The first phase of the project, called the Mitigation Study, was launched in Fall 2021, in the 65 middle schools in southeast Turkey that I mentioned earlier. After collecting rich baseline data from about 20,000 students, the research team implemented a unique mentorship programme where select senior students in each school became 'student teachers' for junior students. The aim was to improve school climate and inter-ethnic cohesion by empowering adolescents to transform their own school environment. The team then collected the first evaluation outcomes in May 2022. We then re-implemented the programme for the new cohort of students in the 2022-2023 academic year and we just finished the last round of data collection (April 2023).
How do you assess the effects of this intervention?
To evaluate this unique programme, we first conceptualise various indicators that would comprehensively describe the relational climate in a school. We then design measurement tools to summarise these indicators in a coherent way. We use a very diverse and interdisciplinary battery of tools: surveys, tests, and behavioural experiments. For example, we asked the kids to list their best friends in school; from these nominations, we know who is friends with whom, which of these friendships are inter-ethnic, how segregated the school is (if each ethnicity is friends with their own, for example), who are the most popular kids, etc. We expect the programme to increase the number of inter-ethnic friendship ties.
As another example, we played an incentivised game that aims to elicit anti-social behaviour and the tendency to tolerate anti-social behaviour. No surprise that we expect the programme to lower the prevalence of anti-social behaviour and tolerance to such behaviour. In this phase our focus has been on students only, not parents or teachers.
The preliminary results indicate a substantial improvement in school climate. We found lower levels and incidence of aggression, stronger inter-ethnic friendship bonds, lower tolerance for anti-social acts, higher locus of control – and strikingly higher academic achievement in schools that implemented the programme. Most these positive effects come from our select 'student teachers' as well as their close friendship network. Our second round of data will tell us how persistent these remarkably positive effects are.
And what comes next, in this second round?
The team is now in the midst of this phase, which we call the Prevention Study. This part will involve both kids and teachers. The actual study is still proprietary; I will be ready to reveal it in the summer of 2023. But I think we will have something major to report. This phase will have a large longitudinal component where we will start following students from grade one until grade eight. I will go back to the field at the end of April to kick-start this project.
We will first know the effect of teachers on the development of inter-ethnic socialisation in summer 2023. We will then implement an intervention during the 2023-2024 academic year to improve various cognitive and sociocognitive skills in these children and their teachers. The fieldwork will start in Gaziantep and Adana, cites with huge numbers of refugee students in most of their schools.
Many of us will know Diyarbakir from news reports on the earthquake that happened in February 2023 in the region. How has that disaster affected the project?
The earthquake had a devastating impact on the region. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands are still homeless. The region's education system took a huge hit, and so did my project. At first, I was thinking of postponing the fieldwork. Then we heard relatively better news from Diyarbakir, that only a few schools had been affected by the earthquake. Schools told us that children would be very happy to see us so we should not cancel the visits. We then decided to conduct the fieldwork as planned in Diyarbakir.
I also started a fundraising campaign to mobilise my academic network to help affected students and families in the region. This was a different fieldwork for all of us. During the week we continued to collect data as usual. On the weekends, we distributed goods to affected families as part of my private fundraising efforts.
While we were in Diyarbakir, Gaziantep and Adana schools reached out. They also wanted us to visit them as scheduled. Gaziantep is a very badly affected city. I know some of my project children died. We know now that we have lots of new students from nearby affected towns transferred to our schools in Gaziantep. We will navigate through these changes. And, of course we will do a lot of charity work on the weekend again.
I have a very dedicated and efficient team of students and post-docs and I am always with them, encouraging them in the field. I feel fortunate.
To conclude, what do you hope will come out of this ERC?
First, we will generate much-needed evidence to design effective educational policies that can build social cohesion in communities afflicted by mass migratory flows. Second, we aim to unravel, for the first time, the causal role of public education in raising tolerant and inclusive generations, free from ethnic conflict and segregation.
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