Integrating Immigrant Children in School is an Australian Success Story

A new OECD report provides some interesting perspective on the debate over immigration in Europe and the Paris terrorist attacks. It shows a sharp contrast between the integration of immigrant children in schools in France and Belgium compared to Australia. Immigrant children in France and Belgium are the most alienated in the OECD, indicating a failure of integration, whereas far fewer immigrant children in Australia are alienated from school.

Three in every five children from first- and second-generation immigrant families in France and two in five in Belgium do not feel they belong to school compared to one in five in Australia. Andreas Schleicher, the director of the OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, told The Independent newspaper that a significant problem with the school systems in France and Belgium is that they are “blind to diversity” and “very standardised”.

The report shows that while Australia has fewer alienated immigrant students than many OECD countries, it does have more than in several others such as Austria, Finland, Greece and Spain. This suggests that Australia still faces challenges in maintaining its successful multicultural society.

The OECD’s report, Helping Immigrant Students to Succeed at School, draws on a survey of 15 year-old students as part of the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012. It says that schools play a crucial role in integrating immigrant children and building communities and how well children feel they belong in school is a good indicator of how they are integrating into their wider community. In an introduction to the report, Andreas Schleicher said:

How school systems respond to migration has an enormous impact on the economic and social wellbeing of all members of the communities they serve, whether they have an immigrant background or not.

  • Australia has one of the highest proportions of immigrant students in the OECD. The report shows that our school system has been highly successful in integrating immigrant children:
  • Immigrant children in Australia achieve amongst the highest results in the OECD;
  • Schools with high concentrations of immigrant students have better results than those without immigrant students;
  • Immigrant students who attended primary school have the highest reading results in the OECD;
  • Teachers are amongst the most well-prepared in the OECD for teaching in multicultural classrooms.

Australian immigrant 15 year-old students achieve high results in the PISA tests. Second-generation immigrant 15 year-old students in Australia have the highest results in reading and mathematics and first-generation students have the highest results apart from Canadian immigrant students. Australia is the only country in the OECD where first- and second-generation students achieve higher results in reading and mathematics than non-immigrant students.

In contrast, non-immigrant students in France and Belgium achieve much higher results than immigrant students. In France, the gap has increased significantly since 2003, whereas the immigrant students in Australia have increased their advantage over non-immigrant students.

In Australia, nearly 70 per cent of immigrant students are in schools where at least 50 per cent are immigrant students. However, it is one of only four OECD countries where schools with a high concentration of immigrant students have better results than those without immigrant students. The point score difference for mathematics in Australia is the highest of any OECD country except Israel after accounting for school and student socio-economic background.

The report says that absorbing the youngest immigrant children into the school system is certainly the most effective way of integrating them – linguistically and culturally – into their new communities.

In Australia, immigrant children are slightly less likely than non-immigrant children to have attended pre-primary education. Immigrant children who have attended pre-primary education have higher reading results at age 15 than immigrant children in any OECD country.

However, there is a significant gap in the results of those who have attended pre-primary education and those who have not in Australia. The gap is equivalent to about one and a half years of learning and is similar to the OECD average.

The report notes that handling cultural diversity in class is difficult and requires preparation on the part of teachers. The PISA results reveal that, within countries, there are large differences in schools’ preparedness to handle multicultural student populations – and, consequently, in their perception of diversity as a hindrance to, rather than a resource for, learning.

Nevertheless, Australia has been highly successful in preparing teachers for multicultural classrooms. Australia has the lowest percentage of lower secondary teachers indicating they have a high need for professional development in a multicultural or multilingual setting of any OECD country except the Netherlands. Only five per cent of lower secondary teachers in Australia indicated they have a high need for professional development in this area.

Despite Australia’s overall success in integrating immigrant children in school and achieving average results, some immigrant children do not have a successful schooling experience. The average results of students from Middle Eastern, North African and Pacific Island countries are significantly below those of other immigrants, especially East Asian students.

Many schools struggle to overcome socio-economic and cultural barriers to improved education and social outcomes. These schools need significant additional resources to make a difference. It is critical to maintaining Australia’s multicultural success story. The abandonment of the Gonski funding scheme by the Abbott Government has put this at risk. The Turnbull Government must resurrect the plan and Labor must give its full support.

Trevor Cobbold

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