On Wednesday, 19 March 2014, the Flemish Education Council (Vlaamse Onderwijsraad, VLOR) hosted a SIRIUS stakeholder meeting on the topic of the underrepresentation of people with a migration background in education. The meeting brought together European, national and local stakeholders in the field of integration and education to discuss policy developments and formulate concrete steps towards increasing the representation of people with a migrant background.
The meeting was opened by Sanghmitra Bhutani, representing the Flanders Forum of Ethnic Minorities, who gave an overview of the platforms’ work on ethnic diversity among education professionals and the current situation in Flanders. Mostapha Bouklloua presented the aims and activities of the Network of teachers with a migrant background in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a project initiated by the government to increase the number of teachers with a migrant background in German schools. The third practitioner, Yasmin Naz from the National Centre for Multicultural Education (NAFO), outlined the current state of multicultural education and training in Norway.
Despite different national contexts, all speakers affirmed that so far, schools and governments have not been successful in reducing the mismatch between highly diverse student populations and a largely homogenous group of teachers, school leaders and parents’ representatives, although due to a lack of statistics, the total number of people with a migrant background are often missing for each school or community. In addition, they shared the concern that there is little awareness of the potential of migrant educational professionals to function as role models and cultural mediators.
The presentations were followed by a plenary debate that mainly addressed the following questions:
What hinders people with a migrant background from becoming education professionals?
1) Many pupils with an immigrant background do not perceive the teacher profession as an attractive career path. Reasons include:
a) Their own school experience has not been very positive. Too many students with a migrant background feel that they are not considered a vital and respected member of their school community, whose needs are acknowledged and catered to. Hence, there is little motivation to return to this system for a professional career.
→ Schools need to become more inclusive. To advance inclusive education teachers need to be prepared for the needs of a diverse class room and receive intercultural training. In addition, inclusive education requires a more democratic set-up of schools. More open governance procedures in schools would help to engage students with a migrant background in their own education. To foster a sense of ownership and belonging, students and parents need to be represented in school government. Teachers and school leaders should reach out and seek the advice of inclusive parent and student bodies when making decisions that will affect the school community.
→ Students and education professionals need to have more appreciation of diversity, but this can only be realised if schools are developed as learning spaces that confront students with cultural and social differences.
b) Teacher salaries are seen as not very high and there is little awareness of professional mobility within the teaching profession.
→ Governments should consider monetary incentives for teachers with a migrant background as a direct investment into the education of pupils with a migrant background. Upward mobility in the education sector and career development, e.g. in school management or teacher unions, needs to be promoted more strongly among students with a migration background.
→ Adjusted salaries and higher awareness about career development would also address a possible preference among students with a migration background for high-status professional fields such as law or medicine.
c) The advantages of working in the educational sector are not clearly communicated.
→ Awareness campaigns should stress that teaching is a profession of high societal value and that teachers can have a crucial impact on the educational and personal development of their students. Students with a migrant background in particular can fulfil an important role model function and need to be made aware of their potential and value in the education system.
2) Teachers with qualifications from abroad face strong barriers to getting foreign diplomas recognised. There are little opportunities to “re-qualify” or attend additional training to obtain any missing country-specific qualifications.
→ More opportunities, such as bridging programmes, teacher traineeships and specialized language courses need to be offered to facilitate up-skilling of teachers from abroad. Current efforts in the medical sector show that this is achievable where there is political will and adequate resources.
3) Teachers with a migrant background are confronted with discrimination in the labour market both in the application procedure and their daily work life. Many schools are still hesitant to hire teachers with foreign sounding names or do not see the added value of a diverse staff. In addition, teachers with a migrant background report that they also face discrimination from their colleagues, students and parents.
→ Policies need to create strong incentives to hire teachers with a migrant background, for instance by increasing the staff budget for schools when hiring a teacher from an underrepresented group in the teaching profession.
→ Student teachers and teachers at the beginning of their career need better support from (migrant) teacher organisations or mentors.
4) Many students with a migrant background cannot become teachers simply because their secondary education does not qualify them for university entry. Therefore, the issue of underrepresentation already needs to be addressed on the level of secondary education.
5) Migrant women often lack confidence in the skills that they need to enter the education profession, for instance when the language of instruction is not their first language or they are not well acquainted with the national education system. Their soft skills should be highlighted and improved links need to be put in place with labour and family policies.
What are the obstacles to successful policy implementation?
1) Insufficient data on the numbers of people with a migrant background holding specific jobs in the education sector render it difficult to monitor the developments in this area.
→ Governments need to gather more statistics on teachers’ social, cultural and migration backgrounds and define clear targets in order to reflect the diversity of the student population.
2) Current attempts to diversify teaching staff often remain on a project level and are therefore hardly ever mainstreamed into a comprehensive policy framework. These projects are often carried out by private organisations with no or little involvement of the Ministry of Education.
→ Governments need to play an active role and work towards structural implementation of such initiatives, which would then allow successful initiatives to go beyond project status and focus on long-term objectives.
→ A more structural implementation would also facilitate a cross-sectional approach that targets this issue on all school levels, rather than focussing only on certain age groups.
3) The low representation of teachers with a migrant background is a symptom of profound social inequalities and discrimination in education policies.
→ Representation can only be increased if measures are part of a structural policy reform to make schools more inclusive.
4) A cross-sectoral approach is not currently in place as regards the training of teachers with a migrant background. In general, it is very difficult for people to move between pre-primary, school, higher and adult education sectors.
→ There needs to be more flexibility for practitioners to move between different education levels.
What opportunities are there to push the agenda of migrant representation in education?
1) Initiatives are most effective when a strong coalition is formed that involves as many stakeholders as possible. The private sector should be included amongst the stakeholders, but they can work as an impulse at most. The public sector must be on board.
2) Other employment areas, such as the care and medical sector, have been rather successful in targeting people of migrant backgrounds. So far, little has been done in the education sector to implement such campaigns, yet it seems much can be gained from targeted campaigning and support.
3) Many countries will face a serious lack of teachers in the coming years. This labour shortage should be highlighted so as to create a sense of political urgency, which could be a powerful starting point for advocacy work.