Migrant integration: Treating diversity as a norm in modern schooling systems

Featured image of Pantic's blog article Migrant integration

Author: Dr Nataša Pantić


Recent estimates from the United Nations (UN) suggest that over 15 percent of the world’s 260 million migrants are children and young people. In 2020, more than 17,500 child refugees and migrants arrived in Europe (UNICEF, 2020). Since then, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has initiated the biggest inflow of migrants since the Second World War. At the time or writing, an estimated three million people have fled Ukraine within three weeks and there is no end to this crisis in sight. The vast majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children, many of school age. This new wave of refugees exacerbates an already accelerated rise in the number of migrants globally as people continue to move for economic reasons or to escape natural disasters and conflict.

Consequently, the social and cultural makeup of school-age populations is changing rapidly, creating challenges for schools and teachers in national education systems that were designed to meet the needs of local populations. The current crisis highlights the urgent need to consider how education systems can accommodate the increasing diversity of student populations as a common feature of modern educational systems and schooling rather than a situational crisis or problem of migration.

Education, schools and teachers as levers of integration

Integration has been defined as a process by which migrants become accepted in a society, that places obligations on host societies to provide access to the labour market and different kinds of services, including education (IOM, 2011). Schools are an important arena for integration as they are among the first places where newly arrived migrant children and families mix with local populations. Schools are important sites for learning local languages and cultural norms as well as forming relationships and new friendships. They also provide key contact points for other support services, and education itself increases the chances for participation in the labour market.

The capacity of schools to support migrant children is significant for their social integration as well as educational outcomes. Teachers are key for creating opportunities for academic learning, enhancing a sense of belonging and social participation in the life of the school [1]. However, this can pose challenges for schools and teachers as they seek to include migrant students who are adapting to a new language, curriculum and education system. Migrant students may also be coping with loneliness and confusion as they encounter unfamiliar cultural norms and expectations. Some may also be dealing with trauma and loss as a result of the circumstances of leaving their home countries. Clearly, it is essential that educators and other school staff help migrant students navigate the receiving school systems, and work with families, colleagues and other professionals to address the risks of exclusion, underachievement or other forms of marginalisation facing some migrant students. Building relationships between educators and migrant students, their families and members of the community is thought to provide key resources for crossing lingual and cultural barriers and creating an inclusive learning environment [2]. The unprecedented number of migrant students now enrolling is schools around the world, but particularly in Europe, highlights the need to focus on collaboration with key stakeholders to share expertise and resources in support of all learners.

In so doing, it is important to acknowledge that the contexts of school systems can inadvertently create barriers to integration due to assumptions about student populations that are embedded in the institutional structures and cultures, which shape what teachers see as possible within their practice [3]. Teachers often express a commitment to education for all students, but they also report not feeling prepared for the challenges of cultural and linguistic diversity in their classrooms [4]. This can lead to a view of supporting migrant students as an additional demand on teachers rather than as an integral part of teaching. Whether teachers feel capable of supporting all students including migrant students largely depends on the support systems available to them, and critically on the pedagogical choices teachers make as they use them. This is why it is important to understand collaborative practices within the institutional contexts in which they are embedded.

The characteristics of receiving school systems have been shown to be a strong predictor of migrant students’ learning, regardless of cultural background or prior education [5]. However, national education systems designed to serve local populations do not account for diversity as a norm. This has the unintended consequence of putting migrant students at risk of marginalisation if they are viewed or treated differently to local students. Thus, the increasing presence of migrant students in today’s schools can present challenges to teachers. Understanding how teachers and other staff use their agency to implement, but also adapt, or challenge institutional structures not designed to accommodate diversity is key for devising policy solutions that support teachers in responding to the presence of migrant students in their schools as a resource for learning rather than as a problem. Teaching that Matters for Migrant Students (TEAMS), a project supported by NordForsk, addresses the challenge of facilitating migrant integration as an integral part of teaching in today’s schools.

TEAMS project approach

TEAMS employs social network analysis and fieldwork across seven school sites in Scotland (3), Finland (2) and Sweden (2) to examine how teachers interact with students, their families, school colleagues, specialists (e.g. language specialists) and other support services. Understanding how teachers use the resources embedded in their professional networks helps us identify the conditions that facilitate individual and collective ways of working that support migrant integration in schools.

At the level of the teacher, the project focuses on teachers’ relational agency – a capacity to work flexibly with others, such as school counsellors, social workers or mental health professionals [6] to respond to all students’ needs in a holistic and coordinated manner [7]. This is essential for removing barriers to migrant students’ learning and meaningful participation, creating opportunities for socialising with non-migrant peers, and developing a sense of belonging in their school communities [8], [9], [10]. TEAMS interprets teachers’ practices using a theoretical lens of inclusive pedagogy – an approach that emphasises the importance of taking responsibility for all students and the role of staff collaboration in enabling this [11], [12]. This approach replaces a focus on singular identities (e.g. migrants) and the problem of integration for particular types of individuals and groups, with ways of thinking about differences as an ordinary aspect of human diversity. We consider how teachers incorporate support for migrant students into their regular practices, rather than providing specific targeted interventions only for migrant students.

At the school level we examine migrants’ integration with regard to the levels of social cohesion within school communities. Responses at school level are central for our analysis as they directly affect students and mediate other influences [13]. Research shows that networks in which learning support specialists (e.g., teaching assistants, special educators, language support specialists) are well-connected with classroom teachers produce more inclusive learning environments [14]. TEAMS seeks to understand how teachers’ professional collaboration in social networks shape their collective responses as they make sense of different policies that affect migrant students. Social networks represent the pattern of relationships that shape day-to-day interactions. Understanding teachers’ relational practices at school level is important because human relationships and collaborations are at the heart of responding to diversity in education.

Finally, TEAMS explores how practices at school and teacher levels are shaped by national and institutional policy contexts to create conditions for cohesive migrant integration. The aim is to advance knowledge about the enactment of practices that empower teachers to exercise agency in responding to unique needs of each and every student, and identify policies that support this.

Emerging findings

We have currently collected 2 out of 3 waves of data. Our preliminary analysis is beginning to show how the social and pedagogical actions teachers take to include migrant students are shaped by the social structure of schools, and to highlight how policies shape school staff networks and practices for migrant integration.

Across our sites, teachers’ collaboration networks for migrant support partly reflect the institutional and policy arrangements in the three countries. In Scotland newly-arrived migrant students are immersed directly in mainstream educational provision, supported by the English as an Additional Language services (EAL), where language specialists cover multiple schools within local authorities as well as multiple languages. In Sweden and Finland there is some preparatory instruction in the early stages, as well as teaching in the migrants’ own language, although this is not compulsory. Teacher collaboration networks that support migrant students vary in each site to different degrees but commonly indicate a tendency of teachers to interact with support staff they perceive to have responsibility for migrant students. The extent to which their interactions enhance or hinder inclusion in education and the social integration of migrant students is examined with fieldwork data.

Preliminary data from Scottish school networks reflects the centrality of actors such as specialists who support learners for whom English is an additional language or other specialists, such as personal guidance teachers and Support for Learning (SfL) leaders. Scottish school networks also reflect hierarchal structures with more management roles than in the other two settings, while policy documents explicitly endorse teacher agency. The Finnish school networks show a great deal of similarity between their teacher communities that reflect the high levels of autonomy Finnish teachers have in their pedagogical decisions. Class teachers work with special educators who offer support in their classrooms. In Sweden, the two school sites present different examples of teachers’ collaboration networks for migrant support. In both sites, collaboration seems to be a strong feature of teachers’ daily work, consistent with the policies of institutional support for various forms of collaboration around pupil support. In one school with a small number of migrant pupils, the interactions of teachers and other actors are primarily directed towards those who are seen to be key for supporting migrant students as per their official roles. In the other school, where the majority of students have migrant backgrounds, social networks reflect teacher-teacher interactions around migrant support as well as those with school leaders and administrators. These interactions focus on student support for a wide range of needs within and beyond the school community.

Complementary qualitative data from interviews with key stakeholders helps us to understand how teachers navigate the institutional structures in order to both implement and adapt procedures that they perceive as enablers or barriers for migrant integration. Across all sites we have found many instances of teachers and other school staff exercising agency to support migrant students’ integration regardless of the policy arrangements. Across sites, the data begins to illustrate how different forms of collaboration can facilitate or become a barrier to integration for migrant students.

For example, data about teachers’ interactions with support specialists illustrates inclusive forms of collaboration, where teachers and other school staff members actively take responsibility for supporting migrant students, whether this is a prescribed part of their role or not. They reach out to colleagues to establish a coordinated approach to supporting migrant students among all others in ways that include them in what is ordinarily available to all students, while recognising different needs as a common feature of student diversity.

These teachers reported seeking specialist support as a resource for themselves to help them better understand students’ experiences related to their cultural heritage so that they could incorporate such knowledge in various subject teaching. In this way concern for the specific needs of migrant students becomes a resource for all students.

In other forms of collaboration, teachers defer to specialists who are seen as responsible for supporting migrant students. In these collaborations, teachers “pass on” the challenges that they face in supporting migrant learners, based on a view that they cannot support migrant students due to language or other barriers. This is especially the case where the focus of student support is predominantly on learning achievements. There is a general sense that migrant students are seen to be needing some kind of extra support, but the nature of specialised support and how the policies that regulate it are enacted needs further analysis.

Emerging qualitative data from students participating in the TEAMS project underscores the important role that teachers play in migrant students’ learning and overall school experiences. There is some evidence that migrant integration may play out differently for students of different backgrounds, as attitudes towards different groups seem to vary to some extent.

The next stage of our analysis will examine the impact of teachers’ network practices on migrant’ students integration outcomes, including a student engagement survey that captures experiences of different groups of migrant students compared to their non-migrant peers. The data collected from school staff and students will then be analysed in relation to the policies that structure practice in order to examine the pattern of variations in pedagogical practices and student integration experiences across the three countries.

What has been learned so far?

Our preliminary findings are consistent with other research and support some key messages for practice, policy and future research.

Overall, to advance migrant integration within wider efforts to develop practices that are generally more inclusive for everyone, it is critical that we shift our gaze away from seeing migrants as a problem towards accepting diversity as a normal, common feature of modern schools. This has profound implications for teacher development, but also for creating the conditions for collaborative practices and cultures. The inclusive pedagogical approach that framed our analysis suggests that, if learners have anything in common, it is the fact that each and every student is unique, and teachers will routinely encounter diversity among learners as an ordinary aspect of school life.

Teachers can be supported to take diversity into account. Emerging TEAMS data is identifying instances of more or less inclusive forms of collaboration depending on how rather than whether teachers work with each other and with other actors such as support staff, to take responsibility for migrant students’ education. Instances of inclusive collaborations corroborate the findings of previous ethnographic research that showed how some teachers have found authentic inclusive ways of helping migrant students navigate the formal structures of schooling to address intersecting barriers such as poverty, racial prejudice, and peer discrimination (1). Knowing students seems to be key for understanding their perspective and removing barriers to learning and participation.

Teachers and schools play an important role in facilitating the kinds of the human relationships that create an atmosphere in which all young people are listened to, included and valued. However, the potential to build and sustain such relationships in schools appears to be constrained by the narrow focus on academic achievement and language barriers in some contexts. Creating conditions that enable teachers to develop inclusive forms of collaboration with each other and with other professionals, requires structural changes in educational infrastructures and flexibility to use their professional knowledge and agency to seek creative solutions to challenges associated with teaching diverse groups of learners. Our preliminary findings suggest that policies and practices that support teacher autonomy and collaboration more generally facilitate networks of holistic student support for migrants as for other students.

Avenues for policies and future research

Migration trends will continue for years to come, highlighting the importance of schools as an important arena for shaping migrants’ integration. Current debates about how best to deploy resources: through targeted approaches that address the needs of migrant students, or developing inclusive approaches that support migrant students in the mainstream provision, reflect uncertainty about ‘what works’. Some policy analysis [15] suggests that universal and ‘loosely targeted’ educational mechanisms aimed at supporting all students could be seen as more inclusive and beneficial for migrant integration than more targeted approaches. TEAMS is generating empirical evidence of the impact of both universal and targeted approaches in Finland, Sweden and Scotland that illustrates how they shape teachers’ networks and practices for migrant support. The three country contexts provide a range of targeted support such as preparatory classes in Finland, support within mainstream provision in Scotland and examples of both kinds of arrangements in the Swedish system, where some schools opt for immersion in mainstream classes, and in others migrant students spend at least part of their time in school in separate classes with other migrant students.

The TEAMS project’s design with at least two schools in each country allows us to examine the collaboration and relational practices at individual and school community levels, relative to the broader education policy and immigration contexts (e.g. different support systems in the UK and Nordic countries). So far we have identified instances of more or less inclusive forms of collaboration at teacher and school levels.

The next stage of the analysis will examine how these forms of collaboration facilitate (or impede) teachers’ and schools’ capacity to enhance migrant integration outcomes, including academic success, cross-cultural socialisation and a sense of belonging to the school community. This will enable us to interrogate claims that teachers can act as agents of change in their school communities. Considering the urgent need to support the integration of migrant students in Europe (and internationally), additional research could be designed to inform policy solutions that create conditions for schools and teachers to facilitate educational inclusion and migrant integration in host countries. To examine how teachers’ relational practices are shaped by national and institutional policies future research should include a purposeful sampling of education systems that reflect a range of targeted and universal approaches as well as intersections between education and other policies of immigration within the broader social welfare regimes.

List of references

[1] Lund, A. & Trondman, M. (2017). Dropping out/dropping back in: Matters that make learning matter. Queensland Review, 24, 57-74.
[2] Moskal, M. (2014). Polish migrant youth in Scottish schools: Conflicted identity and family capital. Journal of Youth Studies, 17(2), 279-291.
[3] Vongalis‐Macrow, A. (2007). I, Teacher: Re‐territorialization of teachers’ multi‐faceted agency in globalized education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(4), 425-439.
[4] Florian, L., & Pantić, N. (2017). Teacher education for changing demographics of schooling. Dordrecht: Springer.
[5] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]. (2015). Helping immigrant students to succeed at school – and beyond. Paris: OECD.
[6] Edwards, A. (2009). Improving inter-professional collaborations: Multi-agency working for children’s wellbeing. London: Routledge.
[7] Pantić, N., Galey, S., Florian, L., Joksimović, S., Viry, G., Gašević, D., Knutes Nyqvist, H., & Kyritsi, K. (2021). Making sense of teacher agency for change with social and epistemic network analysis. Journal of Educational Change. doi:10.1007/s10833-021-09413-7
[8] Juvonen, J., Espinoza, G., & Knifsend, C. (2012). The role of peer relationships in student academic and extracurricular engagement. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 387–401). Springer Science + Business Media. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_18
[9] Smyth, G., McBride, G., Paton, G., & Sheridan, N. (2010). Social capital and refugee children: Does it help their integration and education in Scottish schools? Diskurs Kindheits und Jugenforschung, 5(2), 145-158.
[10] Sinkkonen, H.-M., & Kyttala, M. (2014). Experiences of Finnish teachers working with immigrant students. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 29(2), 167-183.
[11] Florian, L., Black-Hawkins, K., & Rouse, M. (2017). Achievement and inclusion in schools. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
[12] Florian, L., & Black-Hawkins, K. (2011). Exploring inclusive pedagogy. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), 813-828.
[13] Ainscow, M., & Miles, S. (2011). Responding to diversity in schools. London: Routledge.
[14] Youngs, P., Jones, N., & Low, M. (2011). How beginning special and elementary school teachers negotiate role expectations across professional resources. Teachers College Record, 113(7), 1506-154.
[15] Public Policy and Management Institute (PPMI). (2013, January). Study on educational support for newly arrived migrant children. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.


This blog is based on an article Dr Nataša Pantić was asked to contribute to the report to the Nordic Council of Ministers that presents knowledge and information from the projects that the receivers can build upon when preparing to meet the new refugees and other immigrants following the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.