Educating migrants will be the first SDG challenge for rich countries

It is impossible to turn a blind eye to the arrival of so many hundreds of thousands of migrants* into Europe recently. According to Save the Children, this includes the highest number of child migrants seen since the end of World War II. Their arrival is testament to the challenges that some of these families have faced in their own countries for too long; it also presents a new conundrum to their host countries, which must now provide for their clear and ongoing needs.

The promise we have made

The outcome document from the UN General Assembly on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) last week stated that “All people, irrespective of sex, age, race, ethnicity, and persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples, children and youth, especially those in vulnerable situations, should have access to life-long learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities and to participate fully in society.”

This is no small task.

Indeed, the task is one that even better performing rich countries have not managed to live up to in the past. Immigrant students already in many of these countries face a higher risk of underachievement and low attainment in education.

In France, Germany and Sweden for instance, in 2012, over 80% of 15-year-old students achieved the minimum benchmark in reading on average in the PISA survey. But immigrants perform far worse: in France, the proportion of immigrants making it above the minimum benchmark is lower than the average in Mexico, while Germany’s immigrants are on a par with students in Thailand. Immigrants in Sweden face particular problems, with only just over half passing the minimum benchmark – equivalent to the average for students in Uruguay.


There are certainly differences in the experiences of first-generation immigrants, as well as variations by age at arrival and country of origin. However, a cross-country analysis of PISA 2009 data carried out for the GMR 2013/4 found that achievement gaps were wider for young immigrants who had arrived more recently and who did not speak the test language at home. This is relevant, therefore, for all those arriving on Europe’s borders right now.

Young girl in a refugee camp in Jordan Photo: Crown copyright Photographer: Georgina Coup

There are multiple challenges to educating migrants effectively, from the initial hurdle of registering them in school and finding the physical space in classrooms to the challenges of introducing children to a new curriculum and set of learning standards, and helping teachers adjust their teaching methods to more diverse classroom settings. Gordon Brown recently suggested that doubling school shifts in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey could help accommodate the influx of new children into classrooms.

Our own suggested priorities for managing the change among European countries are as follows:

  1. Recognise the need for some to catch up

While not the case for all, many migrant children come from countries where conflict or in-fighting has denied them the right to an education for an extended period of time.  Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea are named as some of the main hubs for migrants currently arriving in Europe. Children from these countries may easily have had an interrupted education, or possibly no education at all. In any case, it makes little sense to assume that these children, who are used to a different curriculum and language of instruction, will be able to slot straight into their host country’s system. Accelerated learning programmes will be essential to give these children a fair chance to catch up.

These programmes will need to have a strong language component to them as well. Many of the children arriving will not speak a word of the dominant language of their host country. In communities with large numbers of immigrant children, education leaders should give serious attention to addressing their language needs, and provide them with support during a period of adjustment. Education systems will need to be innovative in doing this, working out which language practices are best suited for immigrant students. These would vary by community context, by the number of migrant students in question, and by their age, socio-cultural background and existing language proficiencies.  They could include policies such as recruiting bilingual teachers, providing tutors, accelerated learning programmes on language for a limited period and providing textbooks in local languages.

  1. Train up on diversity
Mohammed teaches Syrian children in a refugee camp in Jordan.
Mohammed teaches Syrian children in a refugee camp in Jordan. Read his story

With immigrant populations continuing to increase in OECD countries, classrooms are becoming more and more diverse. Teachers need support to be able to respond to the learning needs of children from immigrant groups,  not only in relation to the language of instruction, but also differences in the subjects and topics required in the curriculum. So far this issue has not received the attention it deserves.

In an online survey from a 2010 study about dealing with diversity in classrooms, around half of teacher trainers in OECD countries said they felt that teacher training did not sufficiently prepare teachers to handle diversity effectively, with the needs of immigrant children being particularly prominent.

Part of that diversity may include children from war-torn states or regions. This will also present new challenges for teachers unaccustomed to the impact that this might have on a child’s ability to learn. As such, training in psychosocial and emotional support should also be considered.

  1. Work on teacher, parental and community attitudes

There is a risk that migrant populations may end up situated disproportionately in particular neighbourhoods. This raises the risk of schools segregated along lines of nativity and citizenship. Maintaining an inclusive education system will require work on different fronts with policies across sectors. Education policies will need to address the possibility that teachers become increasingly averse to teaching in schools that serve migrant populations due to the salient challenges they face. Their preparation should therefore take a positive look at the challenge and offer necessary professional support. Likewise, working actively on positive attitudes from parents and communities will go a long way to ensure a positive school environment. Enhanced local leadership has been suggested as one reason for the success of London schools, many of which have very diverse classrooms.

European countries must make urgent plans to accommodate the learning needs of their school age arrivals. Developing strategies that address existing and potential future inequality among groups marginalized by poverty, immigrant status and other factors of disadvantage is critical. Failing to do so will leave country commitments to the new sustainable development agenda vacuous.

*For the purpose of this blog, we are calling ‘migrants’ all those who have not yet been granted asylum.



  1. Bonjour,

    Question essentielle et urgente à traiter pour sauver ces milliers d’enfants de l’échec scolaire qui les attend si les dispositifs particuliers ne se mettent pas en place.
    Je reste à votre disposition pour apporter mon soutien, je suis directeur d’école en France, d’origine libanaise, je comprends parfaitement la culture de ces populations.
    Omar BADR


  3.  The SDG document and hence this blog talks about inter country migrants. In countries like India where different languages and scripts are in use and the states are formed on the basis language the problem of internal migration is equally important. The number involved is large because of large population base and significant differences in languages in script, structure and vocabulary
      In this group again there are two types of migrants seasonal migrants and long term almost permanent migrants. The problems of seasonal migrants are more complicated as during the course of an academic year they routinely go and stay two  in different states with two different languages.
    The govt. of india has addressed this problem for Central Govt. employees by providing Central Schoolsin all major locations ,  all over the country for the children of their employees. All over the country  this   facility should be made available  to all inter state migrant groups and wherever necessary new schools should be opened. . Shifting from one school to another should me made easy and parents should be guided regarding where they can enrol their children on shifting from one location to another. This is particularly important at primary level of education. 
    The suggestion may appear as impractical but with technology advances we should be able to manage this if we really want to do so.
    By not attending to these groups we are wasting human resource which is invaluable to the country’s progress.
    Parents’ role in children’s education is vital. Many educationally miginalised children remain so because of their parents’ apparent lack of interest in their children’s education. We often interprete this as a result of poverty. In reality it is not as much due to the poverty of monetary resources as it is due to lack of information, role model and tradition of education in family or to describe it in word it is the lack of culture of education in the family or a community.
    Programs educating parents on their role as a parent of A school going child’s parents show encouraging results. 
    The project started in 2012-13 and worked with thousand parents from different locations. The total number of children covered  were about 800
    On two Major indicators the results are as follows 

    Enrolled by parents 
    2012-13.  None
    2014-15. 77%

    Migration before the completion of academic year
    2012-13.     42%

    2014-15.      15%

    This is just a sample. Details are available on

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