Why Being a Migrant Is Not the Biggest Barrier to Education in Europe


Oct 31, 2016

A teacher conducts a German lesson for children of a welcome class for immigrants from Syria, Egypt, and South Korea at the Katharina-Heinroth primary school in Berlin, Germany, September 11, 2015

A teacher conducts a German lesson for children of a welcome class for immigrants from Syria, Egypt, and South Korea in Berlin, Germany, September 11, 2015

Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on New Europe on October 31, 2016.

With migration high on the policy agenda across Europe, there is a need to consider how migrant children are integrated into education systems. In 2015, roughly 10 per cent of the EU population were born outside the country in which they reside, with children under the age of 15 comprising five per cent. Although the pattern varies across EU member states, research suggests that children with a migrant background tend to have lower educational performance and are more likely to leave school early than native children.

However, the situation is complex: children are not necessarily at risk of poor educational performance simply due to their migrant background. Other factors can explain differences in a child's educational performance, such as language barriers, socio-economic disadvantage or a lack of parental engagement with the child's education. As part of work for the European Platform for Investing in Children, RAND Europe explored the discrepancies in educational performance between migrant children and native born children in more detail.

Limited or no command of the host society language is the most common educational barrier faced by migrant children. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report found that both first- and second-generation migrant children who started school without speaking the host country's language were disadvantaged compared to native pupils. Learning and educational performance is often hindered for these children until the language barrier is overcome. Studies have noted that migrant children perform better in school as they acquire the host country's language.

Socio-economic disadvantage has also been linked to lower education performance. According to research from OECD, students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are twice as likely to be low performers. Some evidence even suggests that socio-economic disadvantage can have a greater negative impact on educational outcomes than being from a migrant background.

Indeed, member states with higher concentrations of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have a poorer educational performance than those with higher concentrations of migrant children.

Education attainment is also linked to levels of parental engagement with the school and the child's education. Parents who themselves have limited command of the host country's language may face challenges in engaging with their children's education and wider school environment. Engagement is also linked to the socio-economic status of the parents and their own level of education. These factors can lead families to become socially isolated, which further limits the ability of parents to support their children in education.

The range of factors that may contribute to poor educational outcomes makes it difficult to identify a “silver bullet” that will improve educational outcomes for all European children, both migrant and native.

Helping migrant children acquire the host country's language, addressing socio-economic disadvantage and building relationships between educators and parents are all important factors in seeking to improve educational performance.

Barbara Janta is a senior analyst and Emma Harte is an associate analyst at RAND Europe. Both were involved in the policy brief “Education of migrant children: Education policy responses for the inclusion of migrant children in Europe.”