Migrant Children and Education: Leveling the Playing Field through Policy and Practice

Migrant Children and Education: Leveling the Playing Field through Policy and Practice

Approximately ten percent of the European Union’s (EU) population was born in a country other than the one in which they currently reside. Five percent of these people are under the age of 15. Migration has climbed to the top of the EU policy agenda, and citizens perceive it as the most important issue facing the EU today. Migrants are among the most vulnerable in EU society, and none more so than migrant children. To adequately address the migration question in the EU and facilitate the integration of migrants into EU society, policies must focus on legal channels to enter the EU, recognition of migrants’ skills and qualifications, healthcare, housing, and education. Education reform, furthermore, must start with the education of migrant children, who face a number of distinctive challenges upon their arrival in a new country.

Migrant populations within the EU represent diverse groups. They include EU nationals moving between Member States as well as migrants arriving from other parts of the world. While migrants’ histories and backgrounds vary, they face many of the same challenges – from language barriers to gaining recognition for their formal qualifications in their host countries. They are also at a great economic disadvantage compared to natives. Eurostat data deems approximately 30 percent of migrants, including EU and third-country migrants, at risk of poverty, compared to the 16 percent of non-migrants at risk. Challenges faced by children are even more pronounced. Approximately 37 percent of children with a migrant background are more likely to live in poverty, compared to the roughly 19 percent of children of host country nationals.

The challenges faced by migrant children are perpetuated in their education. Data shows that migrant children and children with migrant backgrounds usually have lower educational attainment and perform worse than native pupils. Many intersecting factors impact a child’s progression and educational attainment. Language is the first barrier to integration in education systems. Migrant children’s learning at school is often hindered until they overcome language barriers in their host country. Parents’ familiarity with the host country’s language is also important: poor language skills limit migrant parents’ opportunities to support children in their learning, and restrict migrant parents’ ability to engage with the wider school life.

In addition to language barriers, migrant children face many more challenges than native pupils. For instance, migrant pupils often attend schools with a high concentration of children from families with lower socio-economic status and educational attainment, which, in turn, can negatively impact  their educational performance. Other organizational aspects, such as a curricular bias toward the majority culture, a strong cultural bias in assessments, a clustering of migrant pupils in underperforming schools, and the referral of migrant children to special education schools or lower-ability tracks, such as vocational education, also put migrant children in a disadvantaged position. Faced with these challenges, migrant students tend to have lower levels of academic performance and higher early-school leaving rates. This means they are more likely to obtain lower levels of qualification and less likely to progress into higher education.

Recognizing these challenges, EU educators must engage a range of actors, from global policy makers to school staff and parents, who can redress the imbalance in education. Preparing teachers for social diversity and using cultural mediators and role models can create equal opportunities for migrant children and children with migrant backgrounds. For instance, increasing the diversity of the teaching workforce can reduce the education gap between migrant and native children and, as such, could have a positive influence on migrant pupils’ educational outcomes. Teachers from migrant backgrounds could also act as role models for students and, in doing so, enhance their pupils’ self-confidence and motivation. Recognizing foreign-trained teachers’ qualifications and providing them with support and training in the host country are important first steps toward increasing the representation of teachers from migrant backgrounds.

Schools must also provide training and support to parents of migrant children to help develop links between parents and the school. This could take the form of cultural mediators or social interpreters at parent/teacher consultations, or specialist home visits to help the family settle into the host country. However, due to factors such as language difficulties, unfamiliarity with the education system, and a lack of time or money, parents of migrant children are less likely to seek contact with schools and be involved in their children’s learning and school activities than native-born parents. Therefore, schools must proactively reach out to offer such support.

Dedicating more resources to schools with a high concentration of migrant children could further benefit their development and lifetime outcomes. These additional resources could take many forms, such as additional funding per student, a higher number of teachers and teaching assistants, and additional subsidies for migrant families to cover the cost of education-related expenditures like school transport, meals, materials, and after-school activities. This would help put these schools on a more equal footing with schools composed of predominantly native-born children, as well as cater to migrant children’s unique needs.

The EU has already begun to provide educational support for migrant children and their parents by disseminating information on proven educational interventions. One such supporting mechanism is Bright Start, a school curriculum supporting cognitive development in children aged 3 to 6 years old.  Operating in several EU countries, it has made a largely positive impact on pupils at high risk of school failure due to their social circumstances, such as being part of an ethnic minority group or socio-economically disadvantaged. The program has positively affected pupils’ problem solving, mathematical, and language concept skills during the preschool and kindergarten curricula. Furthermore, these positive effects have endured long after the program’s conclusion. The long-term improvements in pupils’ educational outcomes, together with the relative low cost and ease of implementation of the program, makes it a promising practice that could be replicated to benefit larger groups of disadvantaged children, including migrant children.

The European Structural Funds, such as the European Social Fund, also provide support for education. Parents on Site is one such program that gives migrant parents a broader understanding of the education system and enables them to help their children make informed education decisions. Other programs, such as Diapolis in Greece, focus on multiple aspects of the migrant students’ experience and provide language support to both students and their families. However, despite the promising results of these programs, we still need more evidence and further evaluations are needed to firmly conclude how well they support migrant children and their families, and if they could be replicated and transferred to other regions. 

Policymakers, municipalities and eEducators alike must ignore the rhetoric coming from the debates over the opportunities and challenges of migration within the EU, and instead focus on policies that facilitate positive educational experiences for children with migrant backgrounds and level the educational playing field. This, in turn, can alleviate the disadvantages faced by migrant children, such as lower educational performance, early school leaving schools early, and low labor market performance. Educational policies can significantly and beneficially impact migrant children and create more equal societies where every child, regardless of his or her background, can reach his or her full potential.



Emma Harte is a consultant at Organisation Development Support (ODS), based in Brussels. Emma conducts monitoring and evaluation activities for civil society organisations, and has expertise in education, migration and social inclusion having worked on research projects for the European Commission and EU agencies.

Barbara Janta is a senior analyst at RAND EuropeShe has been involved in a number of studies for the European Commission and other European organisations on employment, migration, childcare and family policies. Barbara is currently completing a doctoral study at the University of Warwick Institute for Employment Research focusing on the integration of EU migrants in the UK.