Breaking down the barriers to immigrant students’ success at school

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education 

Education is one of the best ways of integrating immigrant children and their families into their new home countries. But most immigrant students have to overcome multiple barriers in order to succeed at school. The latest edition of PISA in Focus shows that of all the obstacles to success these students must surmount, the concentration of socio-economic disadvantage at school is among the most strongly related to poor performance.

Disadvantage and immigrant status are closely linked. Most immigrants leave their home countries in search of better economic prospects. Once immigrants arrive in a host country, they often settle in communities where there are other immigrants who share their culture, their language and often their socio-economic status. Their children often attend the same schools – and those schools frequently have large proportions of immigrant students. As a result, immigrant students tend to be concentrated in certain schools. In most cases, these schools are generally more socio-economically deprived than other schools.

PISA finds that countries vary markedly in how immigrant students are accommodated in schools. In New Zealand, for example, 50% of immigrant students – well below the OECD average of 68% – attend a school that has a large proportion of immigrant students. In addition, the concentration of immigrant students in socio-economically disadvantaged schools is also relatively low in New Zealand: only one in four immigrant students – compared with the OECD average of 36% – attends a school that has a large proportion of students whose mothers have low levels of education. (Having a low-educated mother, that is, a mother who has not attained an upper secondary education, is a measure of socio-economic disadvantage among immigrant populations.) In Germany, the concentration of immigrant students in schools is around the OECD average, while the concentration of immigrant students in disadvantaged schools is higher than the OECD average. In the United Kingdom, high concentrations of immigrant students in schools are coupled with high concentrations of immigrant students in the most disadvantaged schools.

When analysing student performance through this prism, poor student performance, particularly among immigrant students, is most strongly related to the proportion of students in a school whose mothers have low levels of education. This finding indicates that immigrant students – indeed all students – face a major obstacle to success at school when they are concentrated in schools attended by students who face similar socio-economic disadvantage.

In contrast, the results suggest that it is not the proportion of immigrant students or the proportion of those who speak a different language that is most strongly associated with poor performance. In other words, being in a school with students from different countries or who speak multiple languages does not hinder learning as much as being in a school that has a high concentration of disadvantaged students does. In fact, there are many high-achieving schools that have large proportions of immigrant students. Many schools in the Canadian province of Alberta, for example, have just this kind of profile. Often, that high performance is the result of specific national or regional education policies designed to accommodate – and make the most of – heterogeneous student populations.

What these results tell us is that reducing the concentration of disadvantage in individual schools is a good first step towards helping immigrant students integrate successfully into school and, ultimately, society.


For more information on PISA:

PISA in Focus No. 22:How do immigrant students fare in disadvantaged schools? 

Photo credit:  Colour figures / Shutterstock

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