Educational Inclusion

By Ulrich Kober, Program Director, Integration and Education, Bertelsmann Stiftung

Ulrich Kober
Program Director, Integration and Education, Bertelsmann Stiftung

Cities Make the Difference When It Comes to Inclusive Education for Migrants

In most countries, children with a migrant background are at a disadvantage in the education system. Often absent during the pre-school years, and learning in a second language, they commonly lag behind their native-born counterparts academically and are more likely to leave school without a certificate. They face greater difficulties in securing a vocational training position, and are less likely to enroll at a university or find a job.

Cities in which these disadvantaged children and youth live have a stake in changing this state of affairs. This is not only a matter of educational justice, but of well-founded self-interest. Indeed, the consequences of spotty inclusion are reason enough to prompt change: On the one hand, youth lacking participation opportunities in society are soon marginalized and less able to actively influence or contribute to their communities. On the other, cities that feature a sound education infrastructure with schools and good child care facilities offer an attractive location for young families –with or without a migrant background.

Migrant educational disadvantage is a complex issue

Migrant educational disadvantage is difficult to eradicate because it is a complex phenomenon. While poor language skills, lack of knowledge about local education systems and the absence of social networks are in part to blame, a weak socioeconomic background is the main driver of educational disadvantage across all groups. Thus children with a migrant background face a dual disadvantage since these young people are far more likely to grow up in families with low socioeconomic resources.

Education systems worldwide grapple with how to level the playing field by compensating for the socially disadvantaged environments of some students. All too often, however, good intentions fail. For example, educators often count on the active participation of parents in ensuring a child’s educational success. And though many parents may want to contribute, parents with low socioeconomic resources often struggle to do so. Not immune to unconscious (or conscious) bias, teachers frequently expect less of children from socioeconomically weak households than they do from those with higher education or greater professional success.

Strategies for inclusive education …

However, educational exclusion is not a fait accompli. Indeed, we now have a growing number of evidence-based practices demonstrating how to go about improving educational inclusion and achieving better outcomes for migrant students. The key to success includes comprehensive strategies that account for the entirety of a person’s educational trajectory, from pre-school to post-secondary, and which strengthen the capacity of educational institutions to develop a learning culture in which all stakeholders can be more effective. Equally important here is the need for all relevant levels of government administration to support such strategies, ideally with the participation and community-level insights of civil society.

1) … consider the full trajectory of an educational path

Getting a good start is important. The earlier language skills support begins and parents show interest and involvement in their children’s education, the likelihood of educational success increases. Promising local programs that promote migrant parents’ language and education skills can be found, for example, in Auckland where ‘multicultural’ playgroups help mothers and their children feel at home and ‘school-ready, or in Frankfurt where migrant parents are encourages to participate in their children’s pre-school language learning classes. The Stiftung Polytechnische Gesellschaft offers scholarships to the entire family as a passport to student success. Getting an early start with kindergarten and other pre-school programs is an advantage, assuming the quality of care is good and children receive the proper support. Cities should give high priority to establishing high quality infrastructure for early-childhood education.

But getting a good start is not everything. Promoting strong second-language acquisition from primary schools onwards is crucial. Achieving educational inclusion may also require specialized programs and services to help migrant youth prepare for entry and success in the mainstream school system and later to transition to higher education, vocational training and employment. In the area of refugee education, Munich’s SchlaU-Schule offers a good example of how a learner-centred approach can tackle issues of social integration in the classroom as a pathway to educational success. This award-winning school is being replicated in other regions of Germany (e.g., the Walter Blüchert Foundation’s “Angekommen” (Arrived) project carried out with the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of Education in the cities of Dortmund, Münster, Bielefeld, Essen and the district of Recklinghausen).

2) … strengthen childcare facilities and schools

Educational inclusion cannot succeed without strong educational institutions. Kindergarten, primary, elementary and secondary schools require a suitable learning environment: conditions, culture, and capable educators equipped to manage the challenge of diversity.


All-day learning facilities are an important element of an inclusive educational framework. Facilities of these kind, often co-located with local community centres, are already standard fare in some countries. In Toronto, for example, public schools, community programming and childcare centres often share the same facilities. In other countries, like Germany, they must be expanded. The seeds of future educational and training opportunities are planted at these early learning and after-school programmes where children and youth can continue learning into the afternoon in a safe, well-supervised environment. Community-serving organizations such as music, cultural or sports associations can cooperate with schools in such community hubs to offer extracurricular programming and thus strengthen their network of activities and offerings with schools, students and families.

Urban areas where a high percentage of migrants and other socially disadvantaged groups are concentrated pose specific challenges to achieving educational inclusion. Educational institutions require additional support in such cases. Toronto, the world’s most diverse city, uses a particularly effective instrument for determining this support, the Learning Opportunity Index.  Schools in Toronto receive additional support that is based on the degree to which external challenges (e.g., socioeconomic background) affect the success of their student population. These funds are used in part to finance measures like the “Inner City Model Schools” program that has supported schools located in communities in need for more than ten years.


Framework conditions are not everything, however. Open attitudes that appreciate diversity in education are also needed. For this purpose, mission statements are needed that hold up both excellence and equity as guiding principles for all actors to take seriously in ensuring fair and equal access to education opportunities. The Toronto District School Board stands out in this regard with its visionary statement on inclusion.

Learning cultures that are open to immigrant students demonstrate appreciation for these children’s strengths and the things that make every child unique – that is, their family background and cultural roots. Within a culturally-sensitive learning environment, students can develop the self-esteem needed for successful learning processes to take place. Children who believe in themselves make for better learners. In Germany, some Länder like the state of Hesse are innovating around the handling religious differences: Schools in Hesse have begun integrating Islam into religious education curricula as a means of placing Islam on equal footing with Christianity from an educational and a social perspective. This demonstrates respect for the religious background of Muslim students that begins to shift the German narrative of identity and belonging. The Islamic faith, so often defamed in public discourse, is instead appreciated for its positive potential, and its adherents as equal citizens.

Self-esteem among migrant children can also be strengthened by incentives for social engagement when programs work with successful migrants as positive role models in integration.


The right frameworks and open learning cultures are important, but educators and related professionals must also be equipped with the appropriate skills. Good training is one of the most effective measures here. The QUIMS program in Zurich, which trains teachers in handling diversity, is a good example.

In response to the arrival in 2015 and 2016 of nearly 300,000 refugee children and youth in Germany, the Länder have launched a training campaign for teachers in the acquisition of German as a second language.

However, developing a positive approach to diversity and bilingualism among students should be more than a feature of teachers’ continuing education: it must become a tenet of educator training in countries of immigration.

3) … are accounted for across all levels of state administration

Cities can be crucial in setting the course for expanded inclusion. But they cannot do it alone. Without the cooperation of federal offices and authorities, they will not surmount the challenge. A good example of this is presented by Canada’s Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) program,  which is an expression of a partnership between local school authorities and Canada’s immigration ministry. The program places social workers in schools with high immigrant numbers to help the new arrivals and their families integrate more easily. In Ontario, for example, some 200 Settlement Workers are active in more than 20 local schools. In Europe, funds for school social workers helping to facilitate inclusive education are drawn in part from federal sources. In Germany, Länder such as the state of North Rhine-Westphalia fund integration centers in cities that provide educational support for migrant families.

Inclusion can be achieved only if and when all levels of government administration – regardless of their particular competence and jurisdiction – work together across their silos in taking responsibility for the issue. A government-led community of accountable stakeholders of this nature could be open to the participation of civil society actors and charitable foundations vested in promoting migrant education. However, it must be absolutely clear that state actors bear ultimate responsibility for securing fair access to education opportunities.

Educational inclusion pays off

Educational success is not for nothing. But investing in good conditions and skilled actors pays off, as failed or interrupted paths to education incur high costs for communities and the state. The OECD has estimated that improved educational performance – measured in terms of increased PISA scores among students – would by 2090 massively increase the GDP of states with high migrant numbers. According to this estimate, Canada would gain an additional $3,743 billion, the United States $40,647 and Germany $8,088 billion.

New ways forward

However important good practices are, expanding educational inclusion to include migrants is not a “technical” challenge. Achieving inclusion is not primarily about implementing proven instruments or increasing budgets. Effective educational inclusion is an “adaptive” challenge for all stakeholders. Those involved on-the-ground make all the difference: they cannot simply return to whatever blueprints may be at hand – they must remain open to new modes of thinking and develop appropriate solutions for their cities. Parents, children, youth, educators, teachers, youth support professionals and those responsible for education issues at all levels of government will have to take new paths in order to expand and secure fair access to education opportunities.


The Author

Ulrich Kober is Program Director in the area of Integration and Education at the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s headquarters in Germany. His current work and projects focus on triple win migration and global skill partnerships which benefits immigration countries, migrants and sending countries, European asylum policies and educational inclusion of disadvantaged students in Germany drawing upon international best practice.



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