Education and migration

Problem statement

Increasing global migration [1] is identified by many as the major driver of growing diversity in schools and society at large [2]. Declining birth rates among natives in migrant-receiving countries in conjunction with growing international mobility are expected to further increase diversity in the years to come [3]. As a result, most European Union countries are struggling to address rapidly increasing learner diversity in their education systems, ensure non-discrimination, equality of access and achievement for all school-age children.

Implications for education

Empirical evidence shows that migrant students and their families are likely to be structurally discriminated against, openly or in more hidden ways. They are facing limited access to quality education and their choice of schools is often limited to socioeconomically segregated schools, partially as a result of residential segregation, which are often characterised by a lack of qualified teaching staff, cultural mediators, and other support structures. Early tracking is consistently acknowledged in academic and policy circles as one of the largest barriers to successful educational and occupational pathways [4]. In addition, learners from migrant or ethnic minority families are more likely to underperform academically [5], be placed in lower level vocational programmes [5] [6] [7], drop out without a school certificate, have lower access to tertiary education [8], have more difficulties in integrating into the labour market [9], and experience long-term youth unemployment.

Policy recommendations

Research evidence points towards the need for an overall institutional readjustment of educational systems in order to foster academically successful and non-discriminating environments [10]. It is crucial to ensure equal access to quality education at all levels, starting from early childhood education and care (ECEC) for all children. While immigrant and socially disadvantaged children are under-represented in ECEC, research shows that it is precisely these two groups that benefit the most from attending ECEC, which facilitates their acquisition of the instruction language and socialisation to the host culture [11]. From the pedagogical perspective, it is important to create conditions oriented at emphasising and valorising children’s potential and talents, instead of shortfalls and mistakes [11] [12]. In light of this, the definition of the teaching profession and training for it should be revised and adapted to better prepare teachers for social diversity. Availability of special cultural mediators and role models could facilitate the integration of Roma children and those with an immigrant background, and help to strengthen communication and collaboration between parents and schools [13] [14] [15]. It is important to promote more open and informed communication approaches with young people and their parents regarding the educational programme choices and following pathways in secondary schools [7] [16]. In addition, education and training systems should aim to ensure that all learners — including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, those with special needs and migrants — complete their education, including, where appropriate, through second-chance education and the provision of more personalised learning [7].


 [1] If anybody is crossing a frontier in a cultural, juridical, lingual or (geo-)political manner, we are talking about the social phenomenon of migration. See Mecheril, P., Migrationspädagogik [Pedagogy of Migration], 2010, p. 35

[2] OECD, Untapped Skills: realising the Potential of Immigrant Students, OECD Publishing, 2012; OECD, Educating teachers for diversity: meeting the challenge, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2010.

[3] OECD, Education at a Glance: 2014 OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2014.

[4] For ‘access’ and ‘accessibility’ see Parreiro do Amaral, M.; Stauber, B.; Barberis, E., ‘Access to and Accessibility of Education Throughout the Educational Trajectories of Youth in Europe, European Education’, Issues and Studies, Vol 47, No 1, 2015. Article includes results of the project GOETE, funded in the context of the 7th European research framework. Access/accessibility to education is not automatically reduced to school. It also means access to consultation services, youth aid, and financial support. It can as well be described in relation to housing, support of parents, access to children and youth work etc.

[5] OECD, ‘Untapped Skills: Realising the Potential of Immigrant Students’, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2012. doi: 10.1787/9789264172470-en.

[6] Lessard-Phillips, L.; Fleischman, F.; Elsas, E. van., ‘Ethnic minorities and educational systems in ten Western countries’. In: Heath, A.; Brinbaum, Y., (eds), Unequal Attainments, OUP/British Academy, Oxford, 2014, pp. 25-61.

[7] Lessard-Phillips, L.; Brinbaum, Y.; Heath, A.F., ‘The Choice of Academic and Vocational Tracks in Upper Secondary Education’. In: Heath, A.; Brinbaum, Y., (eds), Unequal Attainments, OUP/British Academy, Oxford, 2014, pp. 25-61.

[8] Crul, M., ‘Pathways to Success for the Children of Immigrants’, Migration Policy Institute, April 1, 2007. Web Link

[9] Heath A. F.; Rothon, C.; Elina Kilpi, ‘The Second Generation in Western Europe: Education, Unemployment, and Occupational Attainment’, Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 2008, pp. 211-235.

[10] OECD, ‘Can the performance gap between immigrant and non-immigrant students be closed?’, PISA In Focus, 53, 2015. PDF file

[11] Heckmann, F., Education and Migration – strategies for integrating migrant children in European schools and societies. A synthesis of research findings for policy-makers, Report submitted to the European Commission by the NESSE network of experts, 2008. PDF file

[12] In this context see the discussion on ‘positive discrimination’, e.g. Scheffer P., Die Eingewanderten: Toleranz in einer grenzenlosen Welt, Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 2008, p. 468.

[13] European Council, Conclusions on a strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training (‘ET 2020’), (2009/c 119/02), Official Journal C 119 of 28.5.2009, 2009.

[14] European Commission, Directorate-General for Education and Culture, Study on educational support for newly arrived migrant children, 2013. doi:10.2766/41204. Web Link

[15] OECD, Excellence through Equity: Giving every Student the Chance to Succeed, Volume II, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2013. doi:10.1787/9789264201132-en. Report exemplifies projects undertaken by Germany (pp. 77-78).

[16] Green, A., Immigrant Workers and the Workforce Development System in the United Kingdom, Migration Policy Institute, Washington, DC, 2013. Web Link