3. Provide flexible education pathways for youth born abroad

Young people who arrive in the country past the start of primary education require flexible solutions. They face a higher risk of falling behind in the school system compared to their native-born peers and those who arrive at a younger age. In most countries, immigrant students who arrived at the age of 12 or older lag behind students in the same grade in reading proficiency at the age of 15 than immigrants who arrived at a younger age (OECD, 2015[17]). Evidence from Norway suggests that with every year a child spends outside the Norwegian school system before arrival subsequent educational and economic achievement decline (Bratsberg, Raaum and Røed, 2011[27]; Hermansen, 2017[28]).

Language is one key issue in this respect. A more demanding school curriculum requires a higher proficiency in the language of instruction. Those most in need of language support are students who migrate at compulsory school age and need to adapt to a new language of instruction immediately (Heath and Kilpi-Jakonen, 2012[29]). Research indicates that it takes children approximately two years to acquire communicative language skills. Still, it may take up to seven years for them to develop the academic language used in school environments (OECD, 2015[17]). Hence, the ‘late arrival penalty’ is higher when children migrate to a country where the language of instruction differs from their native language. What is more, in countries that sort students into different educational tracks and schools, recently arrived immigrants risk being sorted into an education track that mirrors their initial language level rather than their cognitive abilities.

Differences between educational standards in the origin and destination country are another challenge: the bigger the gap in the educational standards, the more late arrivals will have fallen behind (or moved ahead) compared to their peers in the destination country (Heath and Kilpi-Jakonen, 2012[29]).

A particular problem arises for youth who arrive towards the end of compulsory schooling age. These youth are at risk of failing to obtain a school leaving certificate in their new country in the limited time that remains. At the same time, they need to learn a new language and adjust to their new surroundings. Yet, for those who have educational credentials from their origin country, the transferral of credentials may also take time, putting these youth at a particular risk. Where late arrival results from restrictive family reunification policies, policy makers must balance the intended benefits of such policies against the costs in terms of lower educational outcomes for the children concerned (OECD, 2017[30]).

Youth with migrant parents are a diverse group. The challenges they face as well as the support they may or may not require to succeed depend on many factors. One of them is their age at arrival. Those who arrive in the later years of lower secondary education from countries where the educational standards are lower and the language differs from that of the new country require particular attention. Without targeted and on-going support measures at school, they may not be able to obtain the basic skills needed to succeed.

Countries should ensure that late arrivals have sufficient time to adapt to their new school environment and catch up with the demands of the new education system. The following approaches can mitigate the potentially negative effects of late arrival on educational attainment:

  • adjusting mainstream education policy parameters, such as the school leaving age or the age at which students are sorted into different tracks

  • establishing specific programmes for recently arrived students without proficiency in the language of instruction, such as time-bound reception or language classes

  • providing recently arrived students and their parents with supplementary information and orientation on the schooling system and education environment, including in their mother tongue

Later sorting into different educational tracks can yield positive benefits for migrant youth, especially for late arrivals and in countries where ECEC is not well established. Separating students at an early age may lock late arrivals into a lower educational environment before they have had a chance to reach their full potential (Crul and Vermeulen, 2003[31]; Oakes, 2005[32]). In fact, early tracking brings disadvantages for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds more generally, who tend to be disproportionately assigned to lower tracks. This effect can be observed both in education systems that sort students into different schools and in school systems that sort students into different courses within the same school (Chmielewski, 2014[33]). Several OECD countries have raised or postponed the age of first tracking to the end of lower secondary education, to counter the negative impact of early selection. The Nordic countries were among the first to make that change in the 1970s, followed by Spain, some German states and Poland, where postponing the age of tracking in the early 2000s by one year to age 16 significantly raised the performance of students who would have been assigned to lower tracks, without worsening the results of top achievers (Wiśniewski and Zahorska, 2020[34]). However, in cases where it is neither realistic nor appropriate to change the system solely because of the difficulties of one group, higher permeability between tracks and adequate support are important remedies. Indeed, early sorting is less of an issue in education systems where students can change tracks relatively easily.

Along the same line of reasoning, some countries provide additional years of schooling beyond the usual school leaving age. Such solutions support immigrant students with limited formal education who arrive towards the end of compulsory education. In New Zealand, for example, late arrivals can remain in secondary education beyond the age of 19. The German state of Bavaria raised the compulsory age for vocational schools from 18 to 21, and in individual cases to 25, in reaction to the high inflows of refugee youth in 2015/16. Lithuania offers an additional year of schooling for late arrivals.

Many late arrivals, however, do not wish to pursue further education but prefer to take up employment, generally of the low-skilled kind. Targeted programmes combining studies with work experience can incentivise late arrivals to stay in education instead of looking for unstable, low-skilled jobs (Box 3.1). Finland’s youth guarantee scheme provides an example of such a programme.

Some countries initially place immigrant students in specific preparatory reception classes within regular education institutions before entering the mainstream classroom. These classes often focus on language learning and are used in about half of European OECD countries as well as in Japan. The idea is to teach late arrivals a minimum level of the language of instruction and to help them adapt to their new school environment before they transit to the mainstream classroom. Other countries immediately place recently arrived immigrant students into mainstream classrooms but ease their integration by providing additional language and content support beyond the regular curriculum. Poland, for example, provides up to five weekly hours of remedial instruction in Polish language and other core subjects to migrant youth with limited Polish language skills, for a maximum of 12 months following their arrival. Similar schemes exist in Hungary and Luxembourg. In Portugal, for instance, students with Portuguese language needs enrol in Portuguese as a second language classes and schools can benefit from additional teaching staff for this purpose. In cases with less than ten students with Portuguese language needs at a given school, students attend regular classes, but follow a specialised curriculum and benefit from support language classes. Besides, the Ministry of Education, in partnership with schools and the Portuguese Language Cyberschool, has developed distance courses in Portuguese as a second language (OECD, 2018[2]).

Postponing teaching of the curriculum until students master the language of instruction is controversial. Critics suggest that immigrant students fall even further behind their non-immigrant peers in such a settling and that language learning integrated in academic education is more efficient (Nusche, 2009[35]; Karsten, 2006[36]; OECD, 2010[5]). However, a certain adaption period is generally necessary for students who do not speak the language and/or face other obstacles. Fixed maximum durations of reception classes and tailored approaches ensure that immigrant students do not get stuck. Reception classes can, for example, start as a full-time support programme and phase out as students gradually integrate into mainstream education. In Sweden, for instance, migrant youth undergo an assessment of their level of academic knowledge within two months of arrival. Based on this assessment, the school decides on the student’s grade and placement in either introductory (separate) or regular classes. Further, the school designs an individual education plan covering Swedish language and core academic subjects. The transition to mainstream education follows on a subject-by-subject basis. Foreign-trained mother-tongue tutors or language teachers are more and more common as teachers in reception classes, including recently arrived migrants themselves. This approach, a part of Sweden’s ‘fast-track’ integration pathways for certain professions, enables migrant teachers to obtain employment while their foreign teaching qualifications are being assessed for official recognition. A similar programme exists in Norway.

Outside of reception or language classes, several countries provide targeted support offers of a more generic orientation type. In Canada, schools run school readiness programmes, such as a ‘Newcomer Orientation Week’ (NOW) for immigrant and refugee high school students and ‘Welcome & Information for Newcomers’ (WIN) for elementary and junior high school students. The programmes introduce newcomer students to facilities, routines and policies, and provide contacts and support before the academic year starts. Teachers, settlement workers and peer leaders provide mentorship to build relationships, reach academic goals, enhance social and language skills, and connect with the broader community. A similar programme exists in Australia, where newly arrived immigrant students can take part in a peer-led youth orientation called ‘Settle Smart’. The programme connects newcomers with peer educators of the same age, who inform about education pathways and social life in Australia.

In addition to language of instruction and orientation support, some OECD countries also enable students with migrant parents to learn their parents’ native languages at school. Austria, for example, provides systematic training in some origin languages. Instruction of the language of the origin country of the parents is offered as an optional subject voluntarily at primary and secondary schools and taught between two and six hours per week. In the school year 2015/16, 32 900 students participated in such instruction. The vast majority were in primary school, where more than a quarter of all students with another mother tongue than German attended instruction in the language of parental origin. In Belgium, key origin countries support the extra-curricular language training. The programme ‘Opening to Languages and Cultures’ (OLC) enables children to study Chinese, Spanish, Greek, Italian, Arabic, Turkish, Portuguese and Romanian two hours per week in addition to the regular curriculum. Courses are open to all students in primary and secondary schooling irrespective of their nationality and cover language and culture of the origin country. Parental origin countries recruit and pay for teachers. This, however, results in limited possibilities for oversight of the host-country educational institutions.

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