Is migration a barrier to education in the UK?


Socio-economic factors and the current anti-migrant climate of Brexit play a huge part in the education attainment of migrant children. However after the age of seven children, young people and adults are excelling in education across the board.

Many migrants face barriers when coming to the UK for a better life, and starting or continuing their education in the British system is one of them.

Hurdles blocking migrant attainment

For migrants seeking to settle in the UK, English will be their second language, and learning it will put them at a significant disadvantage from the offset.

While language is the most obvious barrier and will require support, there are many others too. Such as, adjusting to a new education system, being taught a new curriculum, an unfamiliar classroom layout and lesson format, teacher-pupil relationships and interaction, different disciplinarian action, racism, making new friends and fighting the trauma of losing old ones – and more often than not living in poverty.

On top of that the current climate of Brexit – where an anti-immigrant narrative has been played out in the media and society, makes for a hostile and unwelcoming environment for any children, or adult, coming to settle in the UK. Only adding pressure onto an already very problematic situation.

In Ghana the schooling system is very different. The discipline is strict, the day starts earlier, the curriculum is packed and exam driven, and core traditional subject prioritized. So coming to the UK can be a complete culture shock. This is also true for many migrant children from around the world in UK schools, who have also experienced a different education system. That’s why pupil orientation is so important for newcomers.

A report by Dr Anita Staneva from the University of Syndey, studied the development of 19,000 children from the UK. It was discovered that bilingual children between three and five years old lagged behind their monolingual peers, which does not come as a surprise if they have been recently been uprooted from everything they deemed normal.

Moving country causes considerable disruption in a child’s life that they have to try and comprehend – it’s a lot to take in and no wonder that they aren’t performing as well as their peers after such a huge change.

Overcoming the barriers to succeed

Even with all of the changes that I faced I did manage to keep up with my peers, I owe this largely to my parents, but also my social worker and teachers. And it seems the same is true for the majority of migrant children too.

Despite all of the considerable inequalities they face, statics do show glowing reports of migrant children overtaking their peers when they hit the age of seven, according to academic test results.

In secondary schools Micheal Grove, former Secretary of State for Education, and Justice has remarked that immigrant children drive up the results of the state schools, with London especially benefitting from the diversity in its population. This has been equated to parent’s higher expectation of their children.

A Eurostat report has also shown that Britain has the highest level of university-educated immigrants in Europe. It is one of the few counties where migrants are better educated than the native born citizens, with 31.8% of natives having obtained higher education qualifications, compared to 54.2% of foreign-born citizens.

When looking at attainment in tertiary education we can see that the percentage of first generation immigrants with higher education qualifications overtakes that of second-generation immigrants – a stark contrast to Italy and Spain – where first generation immigrants have low levels of education.

Why are migrants outperforming UK natives?

The Department of Education released a research report: The compendium of evidence on ethnic minority resilience to the effects of deprivation on attainment, which suggested two reasons behind their higher level of attainment. Firstly cultural differences, where more value is placed on the importance of education; and secondly it being a “result of the ‘immigrant paradigm’ – the idea that recent immigrants will put greater emphasis on education because they have less financial capital.”

Parental aspirations and expectations is key to a child attainment, whether they be native or foreign born. However it has be found that “on average, parents from Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian and mixed heritage backgrounds were more likely than White British parents to have: higher educational aspirations.” Whereas parents and teachers had lower expectations of white, working class children.

Summing it up…

Education is a hurdle for immigrants. Whilst it does not block the path to attainment, it certainly hinders. A lot of orientation work in the early years has to be invested in migrant children to ensure they can overcome that hurdle – once done so it seems that they overtake their peers significantly.

If parental involvement in the education of their children is important to children’s success at school, we also need to continue to bridge the communication gap between migrant parents and schools, offering access to interpretation services and encouraging parents to learn the mother tongue.

Opportunities to learn the language and integrate in society are so vital in ensuring that migrants succeed in the education system. The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on social integration has recognized this and recommended that all migrants must take compulsory English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) lessons but there is a three-year wait! With government cuts to funding, how can we expect full integration in society and our economy?

Plus, over the coming months and years, as Britain exits from the European Union the migrant narrative is likely to get more hostile and we have to prepare for how this will impact people in the education system (teachers and students) and wishing to enter; from fees, to hate crime and opportunities.


Further reading

The Guardian: Ofsted head praises England’s schools for immigrant integration
The Guardian: Early education is key to helping migrant children thrive
Huffington Post: Immigrants Do Want to Learn English: Where Is The Funding?

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