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Policy Insights

Avoiding Segregation is Crucial

Interview with Amparo González-Ferrer
Copyright: Wavebreakmedia

What are the specific difficulties that pupils of immigrant background face in the education systems?

Language barriers and lack of a proper understanding of the functioning of the educational system in countries of destination are the two main difficulties that affect pupils who were born abroad. For pupils who were born in the country of residence, the second generation, these two factors are relatively less important. But both groups are frequently in disadvantaged socio-economic positions and this is the variable that remains most important for all children of immigrant background.

What will be the consequences of this underachievement for European societies in the future?

If the underachievement remains, it is obvious European societies are not only at risk of wasting a huge potential of human capital, which will damage economic development and global competitiveness in the long term, but social cohesion is also very likely to be put at risk.

How could the education system be improved to better meet the needs of the new Europeans?

It is crucial to avoid segregation, not only or mainly racial or ethnic segregation, but socio-economic segregation. In a recent analysis of PISA 2009, the reading performance of immigrant-origin students was found to be more strongly dependent on the concentration of social disadvantage in schools, like a high proportion of mothers with low educational level, than on the concentration of immigrant students per se.

What can schools do practically to minimize these differences?

It is important to avoid school practices that deepen pre-existent differences related to socio-economic background. For example, we know from a recent school survey in the city of Madrid that adolescents of immigrant and non-immigrant origin make quite similar use of their non-school time during weekdays. It is during the weekends when activities like reading or doing homework are mostly damaged for adolescents of immigrant background. Even though the described differences are strongly related to parental socio-economic background, it seems quicker and easier to change a school schedule than to improve the parental job situation. Such small changes in the organization of school life may have crucial impact in minimizing the differences between children with more and less resources within the same school.

Many parents are worried about sending their children to schools that have a high percentage of immigrant children. Can you reassure them?

It is not immigrant origin but socio-economic background what makes the difference. There are highly diverse schools that clearly outperform more homogenous ones, there is a lot of variation across countries for schools with the same proportion of immigrant background students, which clearly indicates the percentage of immigrants is not the only and best shortcut to proxy school quality. Moreover, some countries like Germany, Belgium and Switzerland have substantially reduced and, in some cases, even eliminated, the immigrant-native gap in school performance. Asking for better schools instead of more homogeneous schools will assure a better future not only for our children, but for our societies as whole.

Amparo González-Ferrer is research fellow at the national Spanish Research Council (Insitute of Economy, Geographie and Demography). For the EU project “FamiliesAndSocieties” she is one of the coordinators of the work package on Social Inclusion of Migrant and Ethnic Minority Families.

Interview: Sigrun Matthiesen for Population Europe