Non-formal education is critical for migrant children’s integration. It should be a policy priority!

Language classes, sports and arts activities, computer skills training, or museum visits—these are all examples of non-formal education (NFE). They complement or provide alternatives to the formal education that children receive in schools. Non-formal education can have a huge impact on child development. It boosts self-esteem, promotes communication skills, provides a link between formal education and the labour market, and integrates newcomers in the community. For refugee and immigrant children, NFE can be a critical tool for social integration and help fill gaps in the formal education system—for example, by providing counselling for trauma or support for language learning.

One example is the Open Schools initiative of Athens, Greece. Through this initiative, participating schools have transformed into community focal points. These schools stay open after normal hours and remain open on weekends. Refugees in Athens, especially children and teenagers, can participate in language courses and extracurricular activities after school hours, and the wider community can also take part in recreational, cultural, and educational activities. The use of school facilities for community programmes thereby increases interaction between the refugee population and the local community.

Yet despite the potential of NFE as a tool for integration, research shows that migrant children are less likely than their native peers to participate. In many countries, schools with higher numbers of migrant students tend to offer fewer extracurricular activities than schools with lower migrant populations. And many programmes do not account for the specific needs of migrant children, which can create further difficulties. For example, cultural barriers can discourage migrant girls from participating in sports. Lower participation among migrant children is a major opportunity lost for educational and social integration.

Non-formal education in Europe

A recent report by the SIRIUS Policy Network on Migrant Education examines NFE programmes in 17 European countries, identifying successful programmes as well as the challenges they face.

While Athens Open Schools is organised by the Athens Partnership, an initiative of the Mayor of Athens that works closely with the municipality, many NFE programmes are grassroots efforts led by NGOs and individual schools. The SIRIUS report found that civil society initiatives are more likely to target specific groups, such as migrant children.

Key issues for improvement

However, the ad hoc nature of many NFE programmes—implemented only at the initiative of local NGOs or schools, without higher level support—also shows a failure by national or regional policymakers to recognise the benefits of NFE and prioritise its systematic use in schools. The SIRIUS report found only a handful of countries in Europe where policymakers actively promote NFE as a tool for achieving educational goals. Without higher level support for NFE, many children are left out because their schools or community organisations do not offer relevant opportunities.

Moreover, many NFE programmes suffer from inconsistent and/or low funding. Programmes often lack resources to collaborate effectively with school teachers. For example, a community programme that organises a trip to a science museum might not have the tools to coordinate the visit with the local school’s science curriculum. Likewise, teacher training programmes often fail to prepare teachers to work with NFE professionals. Importantly, the lack of resources for NFE programmes also means that they are often unable to conduct formal evaluations or research to improve their operations.


So what can be done to strengthen and promote NFE programmes for migrant children?The social and educational opportunities provided by NFE should be available and encouraged for all children. This is especially important for migrant children, who have even more to gain from NFE yet are less likely to participate. NFE should be a systematic educational policy priority. It needs to be mainstreamed so that all children can benefit. More funding should be given to NFE programmes so that they are sustainable and can improve their work, and school professionals should be trained on how to implement and take advantage of NFE.

The benefits of NFE for migrant children can be seen through the participants in the Portuguese INOVAR 3 “E” Project Promote. The project—which offers recreational activities, study help, and counselling—helped migrant children gain confidence and improve school performance. Or take a look at Germany and its success with open all-day schools, where children have formal education in the morning and extracurricular activities in the afternoon. This is further evidence that NFE can contribute significantly to a child’s development. These successes show that it is time for policymakers and educators to make NFE effective and accessible for all children.


This article was published in the newsletter of the EU Lifelong Learning Platform – the main umbrella organisation of EU education stakeholders – and promoted at UNESCO’s EU Launch of its Global Monitoring Report on migrant education