Chapter 9. Break down barriers to social cohesion while ensuring effective service delivery

This chapter examines the challenges related to designing and implementing policies and practices that ensure that immigrants receive adequate support which responds to their unique needs, whilst also allowing for integration into their new communities. Furthermore, this chapter identifies the importance of ensuring that individuals without an immigrant background hold the capacity to welcome immigrants as a crucial goal for education policy in response to international migration flows.


Students with an immigrant background have individual needs specific to their situation, as evidenced in previous chapters of this report. A challenge for education and training systems in responding to these needs is to develop effective service delivery that is financially viable and sustainable in the long term. Effective service delivery should also equip immigrants with adequate support to develop skills and competencies but also thrive socially and psychologically. This often results in a tension between the efficiency of grouping immigrants in specific schools and the ability to ensure that they are not concentrated in particular schools with few opportunities to develop emotionally and socially. Important opportunities include learning about their new communities, forming friendship networks and undergoing acculturation processes that will eventually lead these students to develop new feelings of belonging towards their new community.

Organising effective service delivery is necessary in order to ensure the academic and broader well-being of individuals with an immigrant background, their long-term integration prospects, and also to promote positive public attitudes towards migration.

Although evidence from PISA suggests that the number of students with an immigrant background is not associated with the quality of the education provided, resident populations where the quality of the education is low might blame new arrivals for poor educational standards. Figure 9.1 shows that many of the highest performing education systems, as measured by the percentage of students who attain at least baseline levels of proficiency in the three core PISA subjects, reading, mathematics and science, have large populations of students with an immigrant background. However, Figure 9.2 suggests that in countries where residents express concern about the state of the education system, immigrants are regarded as a potential threat to the cultural life of the country.

Figure 9.1. The relationship between the share of immigrant students and the quality of education systems
The percentage of students with an immigrant background and the high performance of education systems, by country
Figure 9.1. The relationship between the share of immigrant students and the quality of education systems

Source: OECD, PISA 2015 Database.


Figure 9.2. Attitudes towards migration based on public perceptions of the education system
Figure 9.2. Attitudes towards migration based on public perceptions of the education system

Note: Underlying data for this figure can be found at

Source: European Social Survey 2012, Round 6.


This chapter examines principles that can guide the design and implementation of policies and practices to ensure that immigrants receive adequate support but are also able to integrate in their new communities. Education systems, in parallel, can foster social cohesion by ensuring that native individuals have the capacity to welcome newcomers.

Trust towards others is a key driver of social cohesion

A key indicator of social cohesion is the extent to which individuals express feelings of trust towards others. Evidence from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills indicates that OECD countries differ greatly in average levels of generalised trust expressed by residents, with large disparities also found within countries. Better educated individuals reported higher levels of trust compared to individuals with fewer educational qualifications. For example, individuals in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway reported the highest levels of trust while individuals in Italy, Greece, the Slovak Republic and Chile reported the lowest levels of trust (Borgonovi and Pokropek, 2017[1]). The only countries with available data in which education was not positively associated with trust are Singapore and Chile.

Differences by level of education in reported levels of trust are due to three key factors. Individuals who achieve a higher level of education tend to enjoy a higher social status and command a higher income than individuals with fewer qualifications. Social status and labour market performance is strongly associated with trusting others. Education also leads to the acquisition of skills, which enable individuals to reliably identify situations in which it is possible to trust and not be taken advantage of. Finally, because better educated (and more trusting) parents tend to have better educated children, better educated individuals tend to be exposed to a household environment that promotes trust (Borgonovi and Pokropek, 2017[1]).

On average, around 50% of the overall association between education and trust is due to direct socialisation mechanisms, while the remaining 50% can be traced to the greater social status and cognitive abilities that better educated individuals possess. However, the overall association between education and trust as well as the relative importance of different mechanisms varies widely across countries. For example, in Japan, Spain and Finland social stratification and cognitive mechanisms account for approximately a quarter of the total association between education and trust. However, in Sweden, Norway and France, more than 60% of the association can be attributed to these mechanisms. The cognitive channel in particular appears to be highly context dependent.

Evidence from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills reveals that between country differences in the size of immigrant populations and the diversity of countries of origins of immigrant populations are important to explain why the association between literacy proficiency and trust is higher in some countries than in others. More specifically, Figure 9.3 indicates that in countries where birthplace diversity is greater (birthplace diversity is a summary measure of the size and diversity of immigrant populations), literacy proficiency is more strongly associated with trust than in countries where birthplace diversity is smaller. These results suggest that the relationship between literacy and trust is particularly strong in countries where diversity is high, such as Canada, Australia and Singapore. By contrast, the relationship is positive but weak in countries with little birthplace diversity, such as Chile, Japan and Poland.

Figure 9.3. Literacy skills are more important in explaining who trusts in countries with large and diverse foreign-born populations
Figure 9.3. Literacy skills are more important in explaining who trusts in countries with large and diverse foreign-born populations

Source: (Borgonovi and Pokropek, 2017[1]) “Birthplace diversity, income inequality and education gradients in generalised trust: The relevance of cognitive skills in 29 countries”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 164, OECD Publishing, Paris,

International migration flows do not always lead to prejudice and increased negative attitudes towards immigrants among native populations

Another way in which international migration flows could challenge social cohesion is by increasing prejudice among native populations and by increasing negative attitudes towards immigrants among native populations. When the size of foreign-born populations is large, prejudicial feelings or feelings of economic and cultural threat among native populations are likely to lead to tensions within communities. These tensions can weaken collaboration, cooperation and the willingness to contribute to public goods and community resources.

Evidence from the European Social Survey, a survey designed to map the attitudes and dispositions in Europe, reveals that resident populations did not express greater opposition towards migration following the large influx of immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees in European countries that occurred in 2014 and 2015. In fact, in many of the countries surveyed, resident populations expressed more positive attitudes towards immigrants in 2016 than they did in either 2012 or 2014, just before the peak in arrivals. Moreover, between 2014 and 2016 education became a less important demographic factor in predicting opposition to migration in nine countries, it became more important in three countries and it remained stable in the remaining six countries (Borgonovi and Pokropek, 2018[2]).

Figure 9.4. Opposition to migration in Europe did not increase between 2012 and 2016
Figure 9.4. Opposition to migration in Europe did not increase between 2012 and 2016

Source: (Borgonovi and Pokropek, 2018[2]) “The role of education in promoting positive attitudes towards migration at times of stress”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 185, OECD Publishing, Paris,


Overall, individuals who attended school for longer report a lower sense of economic threat from immigrants, lower feelings of cultural threat and less prejudice - three factors that are strongly associated with individuals’ level of opposition to migration (Borgonovi and Pokropek, 2018[2]). In fact, over three-quarters of the overall association between education and opposition to migration can be attributed to lower perceived economic and cultural threat and lower levels of prejudice experienced by individuals who attended school for longer.

Education systems can play an important role in mediating new cultural consensus

Finally, social cohesion can be promoted by building social consensus on the importance of a set of values and the endorsement of specific attitudes and dispositions, in other words by a shared culture. While cultures change over time and there is no complete cultural homogeneity in any society, different societies reward or, rather, sanction deviations from accepted social norms. Cultural traditions and values are transmitted by families but also by other institutions such as schools, local community groups and regular social exchanges.

Evidence indicates that the values and attitudes expressed by those foreign-born individuals who are highly educated tend to resemble the values and attitudes expressed by populations in the societies they migrate to more than the values and attitudes expressed by poorly educated foreign-born individuals. Furthermore, while all foreign-born individuals undergo an acculturation process, defined as the change in culture that results from continuous, first-hand contact between two distinct cultural groups (Redfield, Linton and Herskovits, 1936[3]), the process is faster among better educated individuals. Although it was not possible to analyse in detail the acculturation process undergone by native populations, over time the influx of large numbers of individuals with a different cultural background is likely to lead to overall changes in the attitudes and values that characterise a society.

The process through which a new cultural consensus could emerge is likely to take time and lead to conflict between different views over the legitimacy of different cultural identities. Education systems can play a crucial role in the process both by socialising new generations once a consensus emerges, and by ensuring that all individuals have the ability to argue and debate with others who hold different positions in open and constructive ways.

Birthplace diversity per se does not have to pose challenges to social cohesion by lowering the overall levels of trust expressed by residents or by creating high levels of prejudice and feelings of threat among native communities. The extent to which birthplace diversity reduces social cohesion depends on the readiness of both foreign-born and native populations to learn about one another, respect one another and change to accommodate differences. While there is ample evidence that shows education is positively associated with the factors that enable individuals to build cohesive societies, the role of education and skills appears to be even more important in globalised societies, marked by the presence of large groups of foreign-born individuals with very different countries of origin.

The role of skills and competencies is likely to be crucial in the presence of high levels of birthplace diversity because without the power of rationalisation, in-group bias and the stereotyping of out of group members can lead to feelings of fear, threat and disgust towards out of group members. Stereotyping operates at a subconscious, emotional level, so much so that individuals are often unaware of their own biases. However, previous work suggests that education can reduce the weight such feelings have on individuals’ choices and behaviours by improving information processing abilities and content knowledge, skills to interpret political communication and by shaping critical thinking, decision making, and civic competences (OECD, 2010[4]).

From evidence to action: Lessons from the field including examples of policies and practices to promote social cohesion in an age of migration

This section highlights policies and practices that countries and schools have implemented to foster social cohesion through interventions by teachers, school leaders and outside professionals. Policy responses and country examples offer ways to effectively provide service delivery so that immigrant students have the support and skills necessary to overcome adversity. In particular, education and training systems can:

  1. 1. support the acquisition of skills and competences among immigrant communities

  2. 2. promote the overall social and emotional well-being of immigrants

  3. 3. recognise differences in migration-related experiences

  4. 4. build the skills that are necessary to deal with psychological and behavioural challenges arising from acculturation (among both immigrant and natives).

Support the acquisition of skills and competences among immigrant communities

Education needs to prepare young people to be globally competent. Global competence can be defined as the capacity and disposition to examine intercultural issues at the local and global levels, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development. Students can benefit from encouragement to ask questions and consider different perspectives. Learning should be focused on relevant issues that are deep, long-lasting and inscribed in a narrative about the world.

Additionally, education needs to foster cohesive social relations. Ensuring that all young people have the necessary competencies for a fulfilling work life is necessary in enhancing integration and societal cohesion through education, including fostering common values.

Imagine NB is a leadership accelerator programme created by the New Brunswick Multicultural Council (NBMC) and implemented in New Brunswick, Canada. The programme, realising the importance of immigrant youth in local prosperity, provides them the opportunity to study and engage with leaders from the community through monthly weekend workshops. Participants learn about different communities, including their own, and build a sense of belonging and empowerment to participate in their school community and beyond. The programme provides a platform for immigrant youth to grow, excel, and be better positioned to act as influencers, decision-makers and leaders in the future of New Brunswick.

Promote the overall social and emotional well-being of immigrants

Social emotional learning is often an essential component of educating immigrant children. Many of these children have experienced family separation, post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma. Furthermore, they may lack a sense of belonging and feel rejected, excluded, anxious, depressed and lonely. New arrivals can face barriers in making friends due to schools with previously solidified friendships or isolated welcome classes. While specialised classes for new arrivals may be necessary, concrete efforts need to be made by school staff to nurture relationships between students.

In the United States, Project Zero established by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, works with children and youth by placing the arts and humanities at the centre of the educational process to help prepare and develop students for their social, academic and professional lives. An example of an activity that focused on immigrants’ life experiences is from a primary school class that created a book of stories to celebrate diversity and share different perspectives. Children interviewed family members and learned how to compose stories at various workshops. For students with an immigrant background, writing can be an opportunity to share life experiences among peers, foster empathy and to help cope with trauma or difficult experiences.

Recognise differences in migration-related experiences

Immigrant and native students benefit from mutual opportunities to learn from one another. To do this, policies can be developed for existing students to learn the importance of welcoming and supporting newly arrived students. The Reading Tutor programme from New Brunswick, Canada, allows students who are native language speakers in Grade 11 and 12 enrol in a class as a tutor to assist struggling English as an Additional Language (EAL) readers. Both tutors and EAL readers receive course credit. This programme allows students to develop different skillsets and to form relationships between peers that continue beyond the classroom. Additionally, policies and programmes that are centred on specific interests of students (e.g. sports, arts, music, theatre, chess, volunteering) can help students develop socio-emotional links in a comfortable and familiar environment.

To encourage the development of socio-emotional links, the Multicultural Association of Fredericton (MCAF) in Canada established the Mosaic Centre to foster learning and friendships in a community setting during the school day for newcomers and native students. Serving as a meeting place, immigrant and Canadian youth socialise, play games and interact with the MCAF staff.

Build the skills that are necessary to deal with psychological and behavioural challenges arising from acculturation (among both immigrant and natives)

Teachers should be empowered to adapt their classrooms to their specific students – by using students’ cultural bases. To do this, negotiable elements of curriculum can be altered so that learning resonates with all students. Additionally, teachers should be encouraged to reflect on their own culture. Culturally sensitive professional development and initial teacher training are also important in preparing teachers for diverse classrooms. Cultural biases, which include personal beliefs and values, can be broken down through teacher education.

Leadership is crucial in accommodating new arrivals. This includes principals and other leaders that implement a school wide approach to integration and have a clear vision of how to support students. Making connections with immigrant families can also help them to remain close in cultural, linguistic and socio-emotional ways. The Canadian federal government funds the Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) programme that allows SWIS stakeholders act as liaisons between schools and immigrant communities. Most often, SWIS provides language and cultural translators during meetings with families, schools and teachers, playing a vital role in linking schools, parents and the community. The school workers offer guidance with regard to the school as well as provide the family’s background to schools. Luxembourg similarly employs cultural mediators to interpret and translate conversations in school settings.

Language is a powerful tool for social cohesion. Being able to speak the language that is prevalent in host communities enables immigrants to communicate with others. At the same time, being able to maintain the language of their ancestors enables immigrants to maintain their identity and sense of self. Therefore, while it is important for immigrant children to learn the host country language, education should also provide opportunities for these children to maintain their native languages. In Sweden, for example, every student is entitled to mother tongue instruction. Although finding teachers who are multilingual can be challenging, specific policies such as guaranteeing training and jobs to qualified immigrant adults as language instructors could help integrate the immigrant community and fill shortages for language teachers. Furthermore, schools could work to promote social cohesion by encouraging bilingualism, additional language learning, translanguaging and the use of intercultural mediators and translators. Such schools celebrate the linguistic differences of newcomers rather than thinking of them as a barrier. Through this encouragement and celebration of language, schools create an inclusive and welcoming environment for newcomers and their families.

Finally, to better accommodate and retain newcomers, schools and communities can prepare well in advance. A person welcomed on a daily basis, rather than just for the first few weeks, will be more likely to integrate and feel a part of the community.


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