Immigrant students and those from poor backgrounds living in developed countries are being failed by the school system and face a high risk of marginalisation, according to a UNESCO report.
Data from the 2009 results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that only 60% of French 15-year-old students pass the minimum benchmark for reading if they are immigrants. This is the same proportion achieved by an average Mexican student. Non-immigrant students in France fare much better, with 82% achieving that benchmark.
Similarly, reading levels of England’s immigrant students’ are on par with an average student in Turkey, and Germany’s are on par with an average student in Chile.
According to Stephen Gorard, professor of education and public policy at Durham University, “On average economic migrants and refugees from less educated social backgrounds may tend to do worse, wherever they go.” He said that when UNESCO quotes difference in attainment rates for immigrants in different countries, “it is important to bear in mind how developed these countries are and where the influx is from.”
This comparison between immigrants and non-immigrants may mask issues over first-generation immigrants studying in a second language. Gorard said factors of social class are of key importance. Where new children perform worse at school than their indigenous peers, “this is not necessarily a consequence of their immigrant status of their treatment by others.”
The key question is what happens over time, perhaps over a generation or two. But, he said, “This is in no way an excuse for situations where there is direct evidence of unfair treatment of recent immigrant students.”
A 2013 report by the Coram Children’s Legal Centre, pointed to chidren of some migrants being denied access to education and housing.
Their analysis found that in England, the gap between rich and poor children achieving minimum levels in maths grows as they progress through school. At grade four (nine-year-olds), the gap was 8%, but it was 19% by grade eight (13-year-olds).
New Zealand has similar disparities, with only two thirds of poor students achieving standards, compared to nearly all rich students. In Australia, the problem has persisted for more than a decade, with two-thirds of indigenous grade 8 students achieving the minimum level in maths between 1994-5 and 2011, compared to 90% of non-indigenous students.
Such discrepancies are not inevitable. Policies in East Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, as well as in Finland, have promoted quality teaching and helped level reduce disparities in learning, creating a level playing field for students from different social class.
Policy interventions to address discrepancies between ethnic groups can be difficult to get political attention. When it comes to analysis of achievement of different ethnic groups, David Gilborn, professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham, said race equality isn’t currently taken very seriously in debates around education in the UK. “I think certainly over the last few years, policymakers have not just taken their eye off the ball in terms of inclusive education. They’ve removed it from the agenda all together.”
Gilborn has worked on the differences in attainment between children of black Caribbean heritage, and the national average, which he said remain pronounced. “Education policy at the moment is dominated by a kind of colour blind rhetoric that emphasises standards and choice, and if anything, talk about inclusion and social justice tends to emphasise a particular view of white students being the race victims,” he said.
The UNESCO report points out that 250m of the world’s 650m primary school-age children are not learning the basics of reading and maths. The researchers put the cost of this to governments at $129bn, or 10% of global spending on primary education.
Bearing the price in mind and the fact that many of the children going through the school system are not actually achieving basic levels in reading and maths, it is possible to break down the cost-efficiency of spending on primary education. For example, in Burundi, the average spend per pupil is $60. But if you remove those who are not learning the basics, and the cost per pupil is $204.