Education International
Education International

Despite difficulties, teachers do their very best for migrant pupils

published 29 March 2010 updated 29 March 2010

All around the world, vast numbers of human beings are on the move – fleeing war zones, escaping injustice or seeking better life chances for themselves and their children. Global migration flows have increased for many reasons. Since the 1960s, the number of immigrants has more than tripled in OECD countries, creating significant demographic changes in student populations. As a consequence, educators face new and urgent needs in their classrooms. Responding to current migration trends and guaranteeing access to schooling for every child has become a concern for teachers everywhere.

A new study published by Education International has found that teachers and their unions are putting the interests of every child – and especially those most vulnerable immigrant and refugee children – before their own. In no incidence have teachers refused education to these children because of the lack of resources, training or support. Quite the opposite: teachers have tried to do their best in providing quality education, despite many limitations and obstacles. The report, entitled Education for Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Children in OECD Countries, was written by Paloma Rosa Bourgonje, an independent researcher. She examined the educational opportunities for refugee and asylum-seeking children in the UK, Sweden, Spain, and Australia focusing on the experience of five teachers’ unions, as well as NGO representatives, policy makers, educators and experts in the field of multicultural education. The study found that in 2008, a total of 839,000 asylum claims were submitted to governments or UNHCR offices, an increase of 28 per cent over the previous year. Little wonder migrant education is now high on the policy agenda of many OECD countries. With the increased diversity of nationality and cultural heritage in contemporary classrooms, it has become essential to rethink the moral and political responsibilities of schools. Issues of justice, equity of opportunity and outcomes in schooling, social and political tensions sparked by diverse identities within the educational landscape – all these factors create challenges for both educators and policy makers around the world. Legal systems in the OECD countries ensure access to compulsory primary and secondary education for all children under a certain age, regardless of national background or legal status. However, refugee and asylum-seeking children face barriers to enrolment, and teachers face many challenges in providing multicultural education: overcoming language barriers, combating prejudice, and facilitating integration as demographics change. Although teachers cannot shoulder all of the responsibility for raising awareness in society about acceptance, tolerance and recognition of human rights, they can contribute to it in the school setting. Adequate training and support for teachers is essential in order for them to fulfil this task. Issues of integration through education are similar in all immigrant groups. However, legal conditions, the gravity of their situation, no possibility of a return home, and post-war traumas make asylum-seeking and refugee children a most vulnerable group. This raises the moral obligations of host nations to a higher order. The destiny of these children is, indeed, a compass showing the direction in which OECD countries are moving: Is it towards international solidarity according the highest declared standards, or in the direction of nationalistic and defensive self-interest based on “fortress” attitudes towards the world? By Guntars Catlaks.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 33, March 2010.