One Size Fits All?

A guest contribution from Sarah Muller on languages in education in Luxembourg

One Size Fits All doesn’t even always work for our clothes, and yet many education systems follow this approach. How can such education be expected to offer equal opportunities for all? Sarah Muller, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, England, is asking this question in a study she is carrying out in the context of Luxembourg primary schools. In this guest contribution, Sarah will tell us more about her research.


My research

My research explores the experiences of primary school students in Luxembourg, going through a multilingual education system whose rigid nature can constitute an educational obstacle. Indeed, the Luxembourgish education system can be described as having two faces: on the one hand, it is often portrayed as a model multilingual education system in the European context. On the other hand, studies have shown that it contributes to the reproduction of social stratification and that it generally disadvantages students with a foreign and/or low socio-economic background.

The language regime in primary schools is based on the three officially recognised languages: German functions as the language of instruction and to teach basic literacy; French is taught as a ‘foreign’ language from year two onwards; and Luxembourgish occupies little curriculum time but is used extensively by teachers and students alike. This highly specific language regime favours students with a Germanic-language (i.e. Luxembourgish) background, which is problematic given that over 60% of primary school students have a dominant home language other than Luxembourgish. In fact, a large number of these students grow up in Romance-language home environments, and these numbers have been steadily growing. This mirrors wider socio-demographic changes in Luxembourg where, as a result of continuous immigration over the last decades, the resident population is currently made up of 48% foreigners.

Not limited to Luxembourg, it is an international phenomenon that student populations are diversifying in terms of their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Thus, within educational policy research, it is important to give a voice to students who, based on the divergence of their linguistic repertoire from the official curriculum, may be facing educational disadvantages or exclusion.

I spent 12 weeks in a primary school in Luxembourg where I conducted ethnographic observations during lessons and conducted in-depth interviews with students to explore their experiences with, and opinions on, the language regime, language policies, and their linguistic repertoires more generally.

About the photo and The Image Speaks project:

School uniforms are an important cultural element in the UK and immediately recognisable as such, however, they don’t exist in Luxembourg or many other European contexts. Thus, it was important for the jumper to have a visible school crest, as this facilitates its recognition as a school uniform for a European audience. As such, the photograph can work in both a UK and a European context. The text on the label is meant to engage the viewer critically: One Size Fits All? Surely school uniforms need to be sold in varying sizes in order to be a good fit for students? This serves as a metaphor for the many education systems around the world which are based on ‘One Size Fits All’ models, and which, as a result, can render many students’ individuals resources, skills and needs invisible. Unless organised in a flexible way, multilingual education systems can be just as exclusive as monolingual ones.

The photograph was taken by Andy Brown as part of the Image Speaks project, funded by the University of Sheffield Faculty of Arts and Humanities. If you would like to find out more about PhD projects in Sheffield, you can have a look at the catalogue of the current and past exhibitions of the Image Speaks project.