by Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive of CUREE (Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education)

I feel greatly honoured to be asked to facilitate a workshop at the inspiring Education International conference focused on “Providing education to refugee children from conflict areas in the Middle East: fast track to Equal Opportunities and integration”. I also feel a little nervous about doing a good enough job.

Pouring over the international research I have been struck by how little we really know; we are still at the stage of describing and classifying approaches to education for migrant students with the capacity to provide the fast track which is the conference’s goal. In many cases we lack even the information to make the numbers, needs, development paths and successes of migrant students visible.

The excellent briefing pack provides us with a compelling bird’s eye view of the landscape, for example it points out that “education and language training will indeed be critical (to integration) as half the refugee population are children and many of them are unaccompanied minors”. 

It also makes a compelling case for the central position of education in supporting inclusion and integration. But the situation is highly differentiated. The research suggests that the  success of education in contributing to inclusion and integration for migrant students depends on a number of factors including the distance from the migrant students’ home nation, the history of settlement of migrant communities in the host nation, national and local policies in relation to education, migration and integration for less advantaged pupils more generally and last, but by no means least, the density of the migrant population. There is a strong tendency for migrant students to fare significantly better where they are present as a critical mass. But I found nowhere in my (admittedly rapid) exploration of the research of the relationship between cause and effect with regard to the effect of density.  Do migrant students end up in countries whose education systems offer them better support, or do the migrant students help those countries learn to do that and give it priority only when they are present as a critical mass?

There are complicated challenges arising from how well local education systems address disadvantage and achievement in the first place.  PISA helps us understand just how big the effects of disadvantage can be. In PISA 2012, age 15 reading and mathematics achievement for students from the richest and poorest socio-economic quintile in much of EU was equivalent to a loss of 2-3 years of schooling for those in disadvantaged communities. In Belgium, Hungary, Bulgaria, France, and Slovak Republic, the difference is greater than 3 years. In countries with large performance gaps, a key reason for the gap is socio economic segmentation of schools, for example, by school type. And migrant students very often end up in schools with concentrations of other disadvantaged students which tend to also be the lowest achieving areas. So the risk of cementing a vicious circle of disadvantage is real. 

There is also abundant evidence of shortages of:

  • teachers with experience of working successfully with migrant students, 
  • textbooks with language and other support to meet migrant students’ needs  
  • training for teachers in supporting  language learning
  • access to Teaching Assistants who speak migrant students’ first language
  • lack of understanding of or scope for mobilising  the curriculum to help all students understand  the importance of integration and inclusion.

What is heartening is the strong, positive and widespread message about the extent to which teachers can and are committed to making a difference. The EI report also points out that “for educators to successfully help migrant students integrate, they must have the professional freedom to select and use appropriate teaching and learning tools and have these not prescribed by education authorities”. I would argue that in this, as in most other contexts, what such agency depends upon is a focus not on courses or training,  that is on professional development done to teachers, but on support for professional learning done by them that draws in the information and support they need to meet their aspirations for their students. 


Sally Kendall, Caroline Gulliver, Kerry Martin, CfBT education Trust, intervention study, Supporting asylum seeker and refugee children, accessible here.

Refugee Studies Centre Oxford Department of International Development University of Oxford, Ensuring quality education for young refugees from Syria (12-25 years): a mapping exercise (2014).   

Improving access to education for Asylum seekers, refugee children in central Europe, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Representation for Central Europe Budapest, (July 2011), accessible here.

Christian Bodewig, Education is key to integrating refugees in Europe, (2015), accessible here.

"Education, Participation, Integration – Erasmus and Refugees", (2016) Speech by Thomas Rachel, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister of Education and Research in Essen, Zeche Zollverein, accessible here.

Making Integration Work, refugees and others in need of protection, OECD (2016), accessible here.