What can education systems do to support students with immigrant backgrounds?

by Francesca Borgonovi
Senior Analyst

Large-scale migration is starting to radically alter the makeup of today’s classrooms, bringing a new wave of social, cultural and linguistic diversity to schools in destination countries. Results from the latest publication of the Strength through Diversity project, The Resilience of Students with an Immigrant Background: Factors that Shape Well-Being, reveal that in 2015, almost one in four 15-year-old students in OECD countries reported that they were either foreign-born or had at least one foreign-born parent. Indeed, in Luxembourg and Switzerland, more than one out of every two 15-year-old students reported that they were either foreign-born or had at least one parent who was; and between 2003 and 2015, the share of students who had either migrated or had a parent who migrated across international borders grew by an average of six percentage points across OECD countries.

The ability of societies to preserve and promote social cohesion in the presence of large migration flows depends on their capacity to integrate immigrants. While migration flows can create difficulties for host communities, they also represent an opportunity for countries with ageing native-born populations that face labour and skills shortages. Effective education and social policies are essential for successfully integrating migrant children into society and unlocking the potential benefits of migration.

Schools often act as an early point of contact between young immigrants and their host societies, helping to determine their ability to participate in the labour markets of host countries, contribute to welfare arrangements, and feel part of their communities. This new OECD report is the first of its kind because it examines the overall resilience – “resilience” being the ability to thrive academically, socially and emotionally in adverse circumstances – of students with an immigrant background as they integrate into education systems. The report identifies both the risk factors that prevent immigrant students from successfully integrating and the protective factors that enable these students to flourish.

Many students with an immigrant background fail to achieve the academic, social and emotional outcomes that are comparable to those achieved by their native peers.

Despite the adversities they face, many students with an immigrant background actually overcome the various disadvantages that often accompany displacement, and display high levels of academic, social, emotional and motivational resilience. For example, as much as 49% of first-generation and 61% of second-generation immigrant students achieve at least baseline levels of proficiency in the three core PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) subjects of reading, mathematics and science; and as much as 59% of first-generation and 63% of second-generation immigrant students report feeling a strong sense of belonging at school. Crucially, many students with an immigrant background appear to be motivated to make the most of their educational opportunities: 71% of both first- and second-generation immigrant students report high levels of achievement motivation.

But many students with an immigrant background fail to achieve the academic, social and emotional outcomes that are comparable to those achieved by their native peers; they struggle to overcome socio-economic disadvantages, language barriers and the difficulty of forging a new identity.

Education systems play a key role in enabling students with an immigrant background to reach their academic potential, feel part of their communities and be satisfied with their lives. Findings from this new report suggest that when education systems adequately support students with an immigrant background, other students can benefit too. The growing diversity that arises from international migration can be a great opportunity for education systems, forcing teachers to rethink their pedagogical approaches and teaching styles. Doing so will better equip them to cater to the needs of each student, whether the student has an immigrant background or not. At the same time, if teachers and educators do not have the right support, they may not be able to adapt to these changes, and all students may suffer as a result.

Schools in many communities are already working to promote the resilience of students with an immigrant background, often jointly with other social service providers and civil society, and with direct financial and logistical support from national, regional or local governments. The Strength through Diversity project has been facilitating dialogue among countries through its dedicated Policy Forum series, but more can be done. This new OECD report can help educators build the resilience, and ease the integration, of all students with an immigrant background.

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