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Educating migrant kids the key to integration – OECD report

7 September 20160 comments

One of the dramatic effects of increased global migration is greater cultural diversity in schools.

And several studies have concluded that the way school systems respond to immigration has an enormous impact on the economic and social well-being of all members of the communities they serve, whether they are from an immigrant background or not.

Now, a recent report by the OECD reveals some of the barriers immigrant students face – and some of the contributions they can make – as they settle into their new lives and new schools.

educating migrant kidsThe report, titled Immigrant Students at School: Easing the Journey towards Integration, recommends that teachers and schools be provided with additional training and resources to be able to specifically tackle the challenges they faced.

It cites results from the OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which indicate that students with an immigrant background tend to perform worse in school than students without an immigrant background.

The report says several factors play a role in this disparity, including the concentration of disadvantage in the schools immigrant students attend, language barriers and certain school policies (such as repeating years – which can hinder immigrant students’ progress through school).

But the report also says that successful integration is about more than just academic performance; immigrant students’ wellbeing and hopes for the future are just as important to successful resettlement.

It examines not only immigrant students’ aspirations and sense of belonging at school, but also recent trends in Europeans’ receptiveness to welcoming immigrants into their own countries – the context that could make all the difference in how well immigrant students integrate into their new communities.

And, significantly, the report finds no link between the share of immigrant students and the performance of school systems.

“Students with an immigrant background tend to perform worse in school than students without an immigrant background, but it is the socio-economic status of students that is the largest contributor to the problem. Schools with large numbers of immigrant students tend to be located in poor neighborhoods,” the report says.

One surprising finding in the report is that, contrary to the general image of migrants having very poor levels of skills, in many countries foreign-born students have parents who are at least as educated as the average parent in their host communities.

“For example, in Italy and Spain, around three quarters of foreign-born students have parents who are as educated as the average Italian/Spanish parent. Even in Greece, which witnessed a large influx of poorly educated migrants in the last decade, about a third of 15-year-olds who are foreign-born have parents who are as educated as the typical Greek parent,” the report says.

Another interesting finding is that students in immigrant families have expectations for their careers that match, and in many cases surpass, those of more socio-economically advantaged students with native-born parents.

Students with an immigrant background also show more interest in mathematics, more openness towards problem solving, and on average a strong commitment to do well at school.

“These strong motivations can break the link between socio-economic disadvantage and performance at school. For example, the data show that in Australia, Israel and the United States, the share of socio-economically disadvantaged students performing in the top quarter of all PISA students is larger among immigrants than among non-immigrants,” the report said.

Also perhaps surprising is very large differences in the policy responses the countries put in place to facilitate the academic and social integration of immigrant students.

While it is true that education systems might have failed to anticipate the current peak in refugee inflows, immigration has been on the rise for decades in several countries.

The report says some countries are better than others at preparing for the opportunities and challenges arising from immigration.

“Large proportions of teachers in many countries report they need more and better professional development in the area of teaching in a multicultural setting. As another example, it is quite clear that language training is one of the most powerful tools to reduce the academic gap of foreign-born students, and particularly of those from disadvantaged families,” the study said.

“However, in the majority of countries for which we have data, only a minority of students who speak a different language at home are offered more than two hours of language training per week,” it said.

In Australia, migrants and refugees are offered more than 500 hours of free English language tuition.

“Perhaps less surprisingly, the report shows clearly that issues of integration do not touch all regions, neighborhoods and schools in the same way: in all countries, the increasing ethnic diversity that results from immigration is an issue for teaching and learning much more in socio-economically disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools,” the report said.

“In France and Belgium, for example, over 15 per cent of the principals of disadvantaged schools report that ethnic differences are a very serious obstacle to learning: this percentage goes down to less than 4 per cent in advantaged schools.”

After taking into account the socio-economic composition of the school, the performance differences between schools with large numbers of immigrants and schools with no immigrants virtually disappear in most countries.

The report said education systems can play an important role by helping communities understand the value of diversity and giving individuals the cognitive, social and emotional tools they need to relate to and interact with others.

It said reducing the concentration of disadvantage is crucial. While it is virtually impossible for any teacher and any school – no matter how good and dedicated they are – to provide effective instruction in the presence of a student population composed of 80 per cent of students who have limited language skills, have experienced traumatic events and live in precarious living conditions. This is feasible if only a fraction of the students need additional support.

Teachers and schools need to be provided with additional training and resources to be able to specifically tackle the challenges their students face, the report said.

“Despite the considerable obstacles to success that immigrant students have to overcome, many hold high aspirations for themselves. Many aspire to be working as professionals or managers as young adults and to attend university. In the majority of countries, the educational and career expectations of immigrant students match, or even surpass, those of their peers,” it said.

“Many migrants have the potential to become assets for their host communities, and while providing them with the support they need is costly, the opportunity cost that is associated with the failure to provide such support is most likely to be considerably higher. What our report indicates is that providing high-quality education to migrant children is possible and that such children have the potential to become economic and social assets for the communities that host them,” the report concluded.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist