Innovation in education

Speech of Deputy Secretary-General Aart de Geus at the launch of the OECD Thematic Review on Migrant Education


It is a great pleasure to be with you today to launch this important policy review on migrant education.
This is a very timely exercise. Migration is one of the Organisation’s central priorities. Indeed it is a topic that comes up regularly at Ministerial Council and other high level meetings and will continue to do so. So you can help us -- your work over the next year or so will help policymakers across the OECD understand better how to tackle migration challenges effectively – through education. The patterns of migration differ from country to country and can change over time – perhaps reflecting shifts in policy or maybe other factors. However, one thing is clear. No matter which scenario we take, international migration is here to stay.


Immigrants bring a wealth of human capital and enormous potential. And if allowed to flourish, they can contribute richly to the economic and social well being of the host country. Countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have been built on successive waves of immigration.
But as the share of immigrants rises, host countries face increasing challenges to provide appropriate public services. Stresses and strains emerge. Much of this is related to language.  Last year, the police chief of one county in England said her officers had to deal with close to 100 different languages. 
And schools across a range of countries point to the challenges of taking in increasing numbers of children who cannot speak the language. Just a month ago, Scotland’s biggest teachers union called for urgent action “to provide the additional resources, professional development and the support of sufficient numbers of specialist English as an Additional Language teachers that our schools desperately need”. 
As one English school principal put it last year “These children just appear from nowhere – they turn up on your doorstep and you have to make the necessary arrangements”. 
Too often, schools do not succeed in giving students the language skills they need. In Denmark, only two-thirds of immigrants who arrived as children speak Danish fluently as adults.  And one in ten second-generation migrants has not mastered Danish either. We see a similar picture for second-generation adult Hispanics in the United States -- more than 10% report that they do not speak English very well. 
Yet we know that the successful integration of immigrants is essential to ensure not just economic growth but also social cohesion. Riots from Oldham in England to Cronulla in Australia to Clichy-sous-Bois here in France have involved youths with migrant backgrounds and poor economic prospects. And these youth are just the most visible sign of a bigger challenge:  education plays a critical role in integration.


Policies that deal with migration are often controversial – especially during election periods. In virtually every country there are politicians who try to get mileage from tapping into people’s fears about migrants taking their jobs, or their children’s places in universities, jumping the queue on public housing, adding to hospital waiting lists or living on welfare.
In such a climate, reforms not only require political commitment but also the right conditions to implement them successfully. And we can easily think of examples where certain stakeholders stand in the way of reforms.   
Now it has to be admitted, such reforms are costly. But the cost of doing nothing is much higher still. Because if we don’t help immigrant children to succeed in school, then we impose on them a penalty that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. They will find it harder to participate in the economy, face a higher exposure to unemployment, earn less over their working lives and have lower pensions.
The education of migrants is challenging and complex, not least because each migrant group has its own distinctive history. And so does each country, where often, different layers are built up. Let me cite just a few examples.

  • Germany has its Turkish guest workers and their descendants but has also more recent massive inflows of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe.
  • Ireland has seen a dramatic turnaround. After a long tradition of emigration, the Celtic Tiger has become a magnet for skilled workers to asylum seekers. In little more than a decade it has gone from almost no immigrants to nearly 10 per cent of the population.
  • Since 2000, Spain has absorbed around 4 million immigrants, many of them irregular. Some are Spanish speaking, many are not.
  • And with much freer movement of people within the European Union, possibly some three-quarters of a million Poles now live in the United Kingdom, adding to an already rich diversity of ethnic backgrounds.
  • In contrast, Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. But even here, migration is on the rise -- in 2005, more than one in ten marriages were between a South-Korean and a foreign bride or groom.

Perhaps all this diversity explains why policy makers in many countries are grappling with the challenges and finding it difficult to figure out what can, and should, be done.
Fortunately PISA 2003 provides us with some data and insights. PISA tells us that immigrant students are motivated learners, but they often perform significantly lower than their native peers. The differences are most pronounced in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland.
 What does this mean in practice? Well, in Sweden and in Norway, close to 50% of first-generation immigrant students do not have the basic math skills to tackle everyday situations. And in Belgium and Switzerland, almost 50% can barely read. With such weak skills, these students will struggle to get jobs and further education and lifelong learning opportunities will be beyond their reach.
But there’s also some good news in PISA. The performance gap is small in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. And Sweden’s second-generation migrants do much better than first generation arrivals.
So PISA has given us a good starting point. Now we need to move to the next step – to analyse policies and practices, and to identify for governments some tangible actions and policy recommendations.

We can contribute our analytical expertise and broader policy experience. And we can help you to grapple with interdisciplinary issues – drawing on the OECD’s unique coverage of a wide range of key policy areas, including economics, trade, employment and education. And we know that to deliver results, policies need to be coherent across society – otherwise we are wasting our time.
You can contribute by helping us to understand your challenges for migrant education, by sharing your country’s priorities for policy-makers, by telling us about your successes – and your failures. We need to build up a picture of what works and just as important, understand why it works.
Let’s work on this together. Let’s dig behind the statistics and analyse the range of experiences that countries can offer. I am confident that together we can find policies that work to give immigrant kids the same chances for success in life as every other child.




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