by Anna d’Addio, Senior Policy Analyst at the GEM Report
“We were blind, now our eyes have been opened … the educated children help us see. (Zahra, mother)” (Changezi and Biseth, 2011)
Family and community involvement is key to overcome disadvantage in education – and all the more so for migrant and refugee students. The world is full with such examples, for instance in the United States for Latin American or Vietnamese diasporas, in the Netherlands for second-generation Turks and Moroccans, in Pakistan for Hazara girls or in Canada among African and Caribbean-born immigrants.
However, there are many reasons why parents of migrant or refugee children may be reluctant to become involved in their education. One of these reasons is because segregation by origin often overlaps with socio-economic segregation. They may feel marginalized and lack confidence because they don’t speak the language of instruction or because they have a lower level of education. This can prevent parents from becoming fully involved in their children’s schooling. In France, for example, only 5% of parents of immigrant students from Sahel, Latin America and the Caribbean have a university degree compared to 19% of French parents. Moreover, more than twice as many children with Turkish or Malian parents repeat as least one grade in high school in France compared to children with French parents.
Immigrant parents may also not feel as welcome to engage with schools as native-born parents and can feel they have little influence on how their children are treated or taught in schools as a result. Such discrimination can be intentional or unintentional and stem from factors including lack of connection with immigrant communities, inadequate teacher education or a testing culture focused on narrow learning metrics.
Many programmes encourage the links between schools and the community
The importance of parental and community involvement has led to many initiatives often started by NGOs and civil society providing mentoring or guidance to parents and/or their children. In some cases programmes are started by governments too. In France, for example, the programme ‘Ouvrir l’école aux parents pour la réussite des enfants’ is co-funded by the Ministries of the Interior and National Education to foster parents’ knowledge of the French education system. Ten times the number of schools benefit from the programme today than ten years ago. In 2017-2018, almost 8,000 parents of foreign students took these courses in France, with women in the majority. Most of them had come from Africa and the Maghreb, but also from Asia, Eastern Europe or South America.
Local governments also play a major role helping engage migrant parents in their children’s education. In Zurich, Switzerland, the Quality in Multi-Ethnic Schools project focuses on language, attainment and integration support. It aims to foster parental involvement using intercultural mediators between parents and teachers and establishing parent councils. In Lithuania, the Your Diary program, is a digital platform allowing teachers, pupils, parents and school administrators to share information about education activities and events. Other examples that fulfil similar aims include the programmes Escolhas (Portugal), SPICE (Spain and Iceland), and Flex-id (Norway). In Argentina, Spain, Italy and Mexico, Scholas Occurrentes provides instruction and recreational activities to build bridges among children and youth of different origins.
Cultural facilitators or brokers (teachers, instructional aides, school counsellors, community members) with backgrounds similar to immigrant students can also bridge language and culture differences between immigrant and host communities. They can offer translation services, help navigate the education system, educate school personnel about cultural practices and beliefs, help parents advocate for their children’s needs, and provide other practical assistance, such as locating language classes or employment opportunities. In Sweden, for instance, the municipality of Linköping trains tutors with knowledge of Somali or Arabic to act as ‘link people’ for the Learning Together programme. Sharing common language and culture, they act as role models, helping foreign-born parents stay motivated and avoid misunderstandings.
Initiatives to reach the most vulnerable parents outside traditional structures are particularly important for the most vulnerable families, such as the undocumented. For example, the Education without Borders network in France offers sessions to advise undocumented families on their rights and to help them complete official document.
Including the local community in decisions about curricular content can also influence the implementation of intercultural education policies. In Lisbon, an alternative inclusive curriculum, developed with parents and students, bridged home and school cultures and led to more positive, trusting views of schools among fifth- and sixth-graders. A resource on the Arab community in the city introduces Arab culture and discusses myths and misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims. The series offers suggestions to teachers on how to connect with immigrant and refugee parents and communities and get to know students in an open way.
Our latest Report was about building bridges, not walls, to foster an inclusive education for migrants and those forcibly displaced. These bridges also refer to those that must be built between schools and the family, creating the inclusive society that an inclusive education needs to thrive.