8 steps education systems can take to integrate immigrant students

By Francesca Borgonovi

Senior Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Around 258 million people were living outside of their country of birth in 2017, with about half of these migrants residing in OECD countries. As diversity continues to increase, societies face the challenge of building inclusive societies to ensure prosperity and well-being for all. Education systems are central to this aim, because of their unique position at the center of societies and their ability to develop skills, promote cultural knowledge, and support social and emotional well-being.

The Road to Integration: Education and Migration, published today, identifies eight policy levers to help societies, education systems, schools and students fully benefit from increased diversity through supporting the integration of immigrants.

Consider the heterogeneity of immigrant populations
The number of students with an immigrant background is increasing along with the heterogeneity of immigrant groups, according to data from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Countries should monitor and adapt their education systems to differing migration experiences to ensure that immigrant students fully benefit from their education. Norway’s National Centre for Multicultural Education and the “Let’s compare our languages” programme in France are good examples of how countries can adapt their education systems to diverse groups by incorporating cultures and languages in daily learning.

Develop approaches to promote the overall well-being of immigrants
The academic, social and emotional resilience of immigrant students are important to their overall success in their host countries. Research shows that the more resilient a student is, the more likely they are to overcome adversities and vulnerabilities related to their immigrant background. Education systems can help foster resilience by developing approaches that account for differences in immigrant students’ well-being and do so in partnership with health, social and welfare systems. For examples, policy makers can look to he Boston SHIFA project and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s well-being framework.

Address the unique needs of refugee students
Refugee children have different learning, social and emotional needs, compared to immigrant students, and they are especially vulnerable due to their forced displacement. To address their unique needs, education systems can adopt a tailored holistic model for refugee integration that involves community- and school-wide participation. Australia, for example, publishes guidelines on implementing whole-school responses to integrating refugee students through strategies that support them academically and emotionally.

Ensure that motivation becomes a key asset for immigrant communities
Immigrant students’ achievement in school and beyond depends largely on their motivation. Contrary to what critics of migration claim, our report shows that students with an immigrant background are as motivated as native students. In some cases, they are even more motivated to achieve than their native-born peers. For instance, in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, immigrant students were substantially more motivated than native-born learners. To help them capitalize on their motivation, education systems should identify specific needs and target training to address them. The Finnish model, for example, incorporates an early skills assessment and individual learning plans for all newcomers.

Provide comprehensive language support
Language barriers can affect the integration of immigrant students in different ways, depending on the host country and a student’s profile. Language support should therefore cater to individual characteristics, such as the age at which an immigrant arrived in their new country, and the degree to which their mother tongue differs from their host country’s language. In this regard, countries can learn from Sweden, where immigrant students’ literacy and numeracy skills are assessed upon arrival in order to place them in the appropriate classroom.

Organise resources to reduce the influence of socio-economic status
According to PISA 2015 data, the socio-economic disadvantage of immigrant students can explain their lower academic proficiency (relative to native-born students) in 25 countries and economies. To reduce the influence of socio-economic status on their academic success, schools can provide targeted funding to disadvantaged students and schools. Schools in Belgium, for example, receive additional government funding to cover expenditures that address the needs of disadvantaged students, such as in-service training and specific teaching materials.

Build teachers’ capacity to deal with diversity
Teachers are central to helping immigrant students integrate in new schools and communities, as well as ensuring that native students embrace diversity. To help teachers manage diverse classrooms, universities should integrate diversity directly into learning curricula, and education systems should provide continuous professional development opportunities. For example, the Intercultural Learning in the Classroom project in the Netherlands uses collaborative workshops to develop teachers’ intercultural skills.

Break down barriers to social cohesion and ensure effective service delivery
Although increasingly diverse populations may threaten social cohesion, education systems can provide students with the social and emotional skills they need to develop trust, communicate openly and be aware of their own biases. In the United States, the Project Zero initiative puts arts and humanities at the center of the educational process to help prepare students for their social, academic and professional lives. Collective classroom activities, such as creating a book, can allow immigrant students to share their experiences with peers, thereby fostering greater empathy.

Our report highlights the crucial role that schools, education systems and societies play in ensuring the well-being of both immigrants and natives in a more diverse world. By adopting a holistic approach centered around these policy levers, countries can help build stronger and more inclusive societies that celebrate diversity – in all its different forms.

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