Data reveal differences between migrant students and native pupils’ in levels of educational attainment. Findings from comparative studies, such as the OECD’s PISA, show that, on average, immigrant pupils achieve lower educational attainment compared with native pupils.
Analysing PISA results, Jakubowski (2011) noted that the socio-economic background of students explains only part of the performance gap. His analysis shows that even after accounting for socio-economic status, in most countries immigrant students still lag behind native students in academic performance, and in many countries these differences are significant. Nevertheless, the disadvantaged situation of migrant students and their educational outcomes can be improved when challenges to migrant education as well as wider integration are addressed.
Algan et al. (2010), examining the integration of immigrants and their children in France, Germany and the United Kingdom, find that the children of immigrants do worse than the children of native-born parents. However, children of immigrants often do better than their own parents. The authors concluded that this suggests that education systems are working to integrate immigrant children ‘though it is much harder to say whether progress is as fast as it could be’ (Algan et al. 2010:25).
This evidence suggests that underachieving migrant pupils can improve their outcomes and do relatively well with the right educational setup and wider integration policies.
It appears that children with a migrant background are disproportionately represented among early school leavers and the lower performing percentiles (Nouwen et al. 2015). Young migrants are also more likely to fall into the NEET category (people not in education, employment, or training).
A Eurodiaconia (2014) report lists psychological factors, such as feelings of isolation, exclusion, or prejudice, as challenges for migrant families. These psychological factors can limit the level of trust migrants have in other people. This, in turn, can further reinforce feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, and can induce passivity and a lack of incentives to make efforts to change their lives.
Eurodiaconia also noted that the feeling of hopelessness can be reinforced by material deprivation and poor living conditions. Other challenges to migrant children’s integration identified in the Eurodiaconia (2014:8) report include authorities’ ‘insufficient awareness’ of migrant children’s needs and a lack of funding sustainability, with the limited financial capacity of service providers restricting the scope and range of services and their stability.
As a result of these challenges, migrant students tend to have lower levels of academic performance, higher early-school leaving rates and are over/underrepresented in certain school types vis-à-vis native students on aggregate. Migrant students are also more likely than native students to obtain lower levels of qualifications and less likely to progress into higher education. They are also more likely to experience marginalization and exclusion (Brind et al. 2008; Heckmann 2008; OECD 2010).
Limited or no command of the host society language is the most common barrier for migrant integration and educational success; poor language skills limit migrant parents’ opportunities to support their children in their learning.
Analysing the situation of the first generation of migrant children, Dumčius et al. (2013) observe that language barriers also restrict migrant parents’ ability to engage with the wider school life (e.g. through being involved in parents’ committees, contributing to school activities) and in communication with service providers.
Migrant children (both first- and second-generation) starting school without the knowledge of a host country language are in a disadvantaged position vis-à-vis native pupils, and their learning is often hindered until they overcome the language barrier (OECD 2010). The OECD results show that those who do not speak the language of instruction at home score lower on reading and mathematics than those who do. Nonetheless, migrant children who do speak the language of instruction at home still tend to score lower on the same tests than native students.
However, these differences in attainment are not exclusively linked to speaking a different language from the language of instruction, and socio-cultural factors might also play a role. For example, cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), a ‘decontextualized language use […] common in school subjects,’ is suggested as an important factor for attainment (Brind et al. 2008, 37).
Other studies, however, are more positive in their outlook. De Paola and Brunello (2016), for example, show that attainment in mathematics among students who do not speak the language of instruction at home varies depending on the country.
Research from the UK examining educational attainment among 5–16 year olds has shown that, despite performing less well than native students prior to starting school, ethnic minority children ‘catch up during their school career,’ mainly as a result of language acquisition (De Paola and Brunello 2016, 19; Dustmann et al. 2012).
Cultural competency is essential in any educational setting. How does a teacher understand the inner worlds of her students? Through skill in connecting with diverse cultural backgrounds, interests, and personalities. Cultural competency requires, first and foremost, that teachers see themselves as lifelong learners who will inevitably encounter new cultures in the classroom, whether immigrant, racial, technological, stylistic, and more. Researchers have shown that educators’ racial biases and stereotypes, whether explicit or unconscious, have significant effects on student learning and feelings of inclusion. There is room for optimism, though, because researchers have also begun to help us understand what kinds of actions — some small, and others big — we can take to reduce the effects of stereotypes and biases in the classroom.
Some challenges faced by migrant children result from the characteristics of migrant groups, e.g. low socio-economic status, knowledge of a local language, psychological barriers, potential low expectations from parents and teachers, as well insufficient family and community support.
On average, migrant children have a significantly lower level of academic achievement than children with two native-born parents.
The OECD’s analysis of the PISA data shows that a high concentration of migrant children in a school or class is not necessarily a factor that could hinder other students’ performance. It is more likely that a high concentration of children from families with lower socio-economic status and educational attainment impacts negatively on educational performance.
Similarly, the presence of a large number of children with low-educated parents (in particular the mother) has a far greater impact on the overall school achievement of students than the presence of a large number of migrant children in a class or school.
The presence of children with high educational aspirations and good academic performance has a substantial influence on the achievement of migrant children. The benefits of mixed classrooms are twofold: first, they help students to achieve better academic outcomes; second they encourage social inclusion.
Other challenges are linked to the organisational aspects in which support takes place, e.g. curriculum bias valuing majority culture; a strong cultural bias in assessment tests; limited funding opportunities for the provision of support; a clustering of migrant students in underperforming schools and the referral of migrant children to special education schools or lower-ability tracks (e.g. vocational education); and inadequate levels of responsiveness from the state and other regional and local actors.