The migrant kids left at the back of the class

Too many European countries are leaving students, teachers and schools on their own.

This year, the UN’s global report on education focused on migrant and refugee children. According to UNESCO, migrant and refugee children in the world today could fill half a million classrooms—an increase of 26% since 2000. In most developed countries, at least one out of five 15-year olds are immigrants or have immigrant parents. But never have so many young people been displaced and denied their right to a quality education.

Migrant and refugee education in Europe

The UN’s recommendations on migrant and refugee education should come as no surprise to policymakers and stakeholders in Europe. The report endorses and builds on the agenda of SIRIUS—the EU’s network on migrant education since 2012—and other recommendations by European governments and institutions over the past decade. A high level of consensus exists on the needs and solutions for migrant and refugee pupils.

Developed destinations like Europe should be well-equipped to handle the needs of refugee and migrant pupils. Money certainly helps in the under-funded area of refugee education, and the European Commission has opened up significant funding for integration.

But problems persist, and the fact that policymakers and experts continue to raise the issue of migrant and refugee education shows that the issue is mainly one of implementation. Although mass displacement caused by global conflict has been ongoing for years—if not decades—many of our education systems have yet to adapt. National roundtables held by the SIRIUS network across Europe found that little has changed for newcomer pupils since the large-scale arrivals in 2015/16. Teachers and school staff still lack training on how to work with migrant pupils and parents. And some countries have a shortage of teachers needed to accommodate the increase in students. For example, Germany needs an additional 42,000 trained teachers, and Turkey needs at least 80,000.

But as the numbers of border crossings and asylum applications decreased after 2015/16, the policy agenda on the education of migrant and refugee pupils also dwindled, despite the fact that these newly arrived pupils remained in the education system. The UN’s educational experts explain that education policymakers took an ‘emergency response perspective’ to migration but failed to replace this with structural interventions for effective inclusion of the new pupils.

Key areas for improvement

Most of Europe’s teachers still lack the capacity to understand and address the needs of migrant and refugee pupils. The situation is especially urgent in newer destination countries, cities and areas with little experience of diversity. SIRIUS study visits to classrooms across Europe, including to Portugal and Germany, found that most teachers are still not being properly trained, especially on practical skills like how to use multilingual resources, include parents and take advantage of local organisations. SIRIUS also found that school leaders could create an overall ‘school culture’ for teachers to take up available training, funding and resources, but their critical role is often overlooked and under supported.

Most teachers and schools are left to tackle education of refugee and migrant pupils on their own, without links to each other. They also lack connections to non-formal education and mentoring initiatives that ensure disadvantaged pupils receive academic and psychosocial support both during and after school hours. Moreover, the SIRIUS Annual Watch Report finds that, while migrant pupils are more likely to benefit from non-formal and competence-based learning, they are less likely to access it in practice, because these programmes rarely prioritise or monitor their participation. This lack of coordination also has a disproportionate impact on schools in disadvantaged areas.

Although governments devote significant resources to getting adults into work and obsess over employment rates, there is often no data on how newcomer pupils are faring and the struggles that push many to leave school early without the diplomas needed for the labour market. According to the Migrant Integration Policy Index, education policies are more conservative and slower to respond to the needs of migrants and refugees than other areas of integration, like employment or health policy. Education policymakers and stakeholders regularly tell SIRIUS that its national roundtables are the only occasion where they can meet to discuss migrant education.

Moving forward on migrant and refugee education

Europe cannot continue to neglect the implementation of inclusive education. It’s not as if Europe is lacking in good practices. Teacher training institutes in Hamburg, Germany and Norway are leading the way. Sweden has fast-tracked employment for refugee teachers, and Portugal’s Choices Programme is an internationally-recognised initiative linking schools and non-formal education.

Rather, implementation requires a drastic investment in national coordination and international peer learning so that best practices can spread and reach the millions of migrant and refugee pupils who will help shape Europe’s future. The United Nations is right—it’s time for #EducationOntheMove.