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Teachers’ Roles in Integration of Migrant Students: Lessons Learned from Scotland, Finland and Sweden

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Cecilia GialdiniNataša Pantić
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Teachers’ Roles in Integration of Migrant Students: Lessons Learned from Scotland, Finland and Sweden
Classroom - © Pixabay DeltaWorks

Education and Migrant Students

Recent estimates from the United Nations (UN) suggest that over 15 per cent 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). Moreover, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has caused a sharp increase in the influx of people into European countries, most of them children of schooling 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. Migration cannot be considered a crisis anymore; it is a phenomenon that is constantly happening although it might have cyclical spikes (e.g., the invasion of Ukraine or the civil war in Syria). Normalizing it as a phenomenon, though, allows us to frame the changes in the social and cultural mosaic of Europe as a natural process rather than a crisis and to see diversity as a resource rather than a problem. This process is particularly crucial in education, as it is a vital pillar of integration in the host country (IOM,2011). Hence, there is a need to understand how education systems can accommodate the increasing diversity of student populations as a standard feature of modern educational systems and schooling rather than a situational crisis or migration problem. The role of schools in supporting migrant children extends beyond academic needs; it is crucial for their social integration and overall educational success. Migrant students face various challenges when entering education in the host countries. From grappling with new languages and curricula to navigating unfamiliar cultural norms and dealing with the emotional toll of displacement, migrant students face multifaceted obstacles. Teachers are key players in this process, creating environments that foster academic growth, a sense of belonging, and active participation within the school community. Therefore, educators and school staff must actively help these students navigate their new educational landscapes, as they are the adult figures who interact with the pupils daily. The crucial question here is: how?

The context: Scotland, Finland and Sweden

The results here are based on data from a four-year project conducted in Scotland, Finland, and Sweden. Data collection involved a combination of observations, surveys, interviews, and reflective logs to examine the nature and intensity of interactions among teachers in supporting migrant students. These countries offer interesting insights due to their diverse immigration histories and policies.

Scotland has experienced a significant increase in immigration over the past two decades: there are approximately 700,000 pupils in publicly funded schools in Scotland, with around 62,000 pupils (9 per cent) speaking a home language other than English. Finland, relatively new to immigration, has seen rising diversity due to global migration trends. About 8 per cent of Finland’s population has a foreign background, with Russian speakers comprising the largest immigrant group, followed by Estonian, Arabic, English, and Somali speakers. Sweden, historically a country of immigration, has about 10.3 million inhabitants, with approximately 17 per cent foreign-born. As of 2020, about 7 per cent of all elementary school students (aged 7-15) had arrived in Sweden in the four years prior.

In terms of approaches to educating migrant students, these countries exemplify three strategies of inclusive education: targeted, universalist, and mixed. Scotland follows a universalist approach, immediately integrating migrant students into mainstream classes with additional support, mainly through English as an Additional Language (EAL) services.1 Finland adopts a targeted approach, where students spend up to two years in separate classes with intensive Finnish language courses before being included in mainstream education . Sweden employs a mix of approaches, with schools deciding whether to create individual courses or integrate migrant students directly into mainstream classes, depending on the region or school.

These diverse contexts vary in integration policy and educational strategies, but teachers’ roles remain crucial in providing adequate support and care to migrant students. The following section explores critical lessons learned from these contexts.

Lessons Learned

Despite the models’ differences, the teachers’ role has been pivotal in supporting migrant student integration in all three contexts. However, many teachers feel unprepared due to rigid institutional contexts, scarce resources, and limited policy guidance. Across the board, the study highlighted how teachers already possess knowledge but must build confidence in accessing it. Mapping of teachers’ social networks showed how they mobilize support for migrant students, not acting as isolated individuals but purposefully reaching out to other actors in their professional and personal networks to help migrant pupils navigate unfamiliar systems. Collaboration has proven essential in supporting students, particularly those from migrant backgrounds in all three countries. Working closely with families, colleagues, and support professionals is crucial for addressing the risks of exclusion, underachievement, and marginalization that migrant students may face. Establishing strong relationships between educators, students, and families helps bridge linguistic and cultural gaps, fostering an inclusive learning environment where all students can thrive. Teachers leverage their connections and relationships to gain insights into students’ backgrounds, drawing information from various sources within the school and community, particularly seeking help from experts to navigate specific situations.

Another interesting finding was the role of migrant teachers: in fact, their assistance was sought out more frequently than non-migrant teachers, but they were also more proactive in finding solutions to accommodate migrant students’ needs. This trend aligns with the idea that lived experiences are valued as expertise. Hence, the similar situations that teachers have experienced can be vital in understanding and responding to the needs of migrant students. This aspect was particularly evident during the observation of mother tongue lessons in Sweden, where the Turkish teacher, also a migrant, could “speak the same language” as their Turkish students, literally and figuratively. Teachers are more likely to be proactive and inclusive when there’s a culture of collaboration, some examples from school practices in Sweden and Finland were particularly illuminating in this regard: in both Finnish schools that participated in the project, teachers had structured collaboration moments, leading to frequent knowledge exchanges related to learning and student well-being. In the rest of the schools observed in Scotland and Sweden, such interactions seemed more serendipitous.

The collaboration patterns had some correlations with how the support for students was shaped: in schools where collaboration was more structured, support for migrant students was provided directly by teachers without delegating the issue to a specialist. Indeed, in this case the specialist figure functioned more as a consultant for teachers. Re-framing specialists in this matter, though, might not only be a deliberate decision but an adaptation to circumstances: in fact, in Scotland, the funding for specialist teachers for English as an Additional Language (EAL) has been cut over the past years, one EAL teacher now works with multiple schools. Their role is, therefore, experiencing an unplanned shift towards support for class teachers rather than for single students.

Implications For Future

This study, conducted across schools in Sweden, Scotland, and Finland, has emphasized the importance of collaboration in effectively supporting migrant students and leveraging the experience of teachers from migrant backgrounds. While teachers play a pivotal role in creating inclusive environments, they need adequate support and training to address the diverse needs of migrant students effectively. The findings have highlighted two important aspects of teachers’ support for migrant students: 1) in most cases, teachers already possessed the necessary knowledge but lacked confidence in accessing it. Collaboration with other teachers seemed to increase this confidence; 2) the role of specialists, given the limited resources, worked better as capacity building for teachers rather than direct support for students.

These findings have implications for policies even in countries that were not included in the study. In fact, evidence from this but also other contexts points towards the fact that incentivizing collaboration among teachers, potentially through structured opportunities, can further enhance support for migrant and other students within educational settings. Instead of inundating teachers with toolkits and policies, training programmes should bolster teachers’ confidence in their practices and activate their existing resources. Revising the role of experts to avoid over-reliance on one figure is also crucial to allow teachers to be fully independent in their practices: this includes valorizing the experience of migrant teachers and using them as a resource to identify and target students’ needs more effectively.

1: Sime, Daniela (2018) “Educating migrant and refugee pupils,” in Daniela; Sime et al. (eds) Scottish Education. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Cecilia Gialdini

Cecilia Gialdini

Cecilia Gialdini is a researcher in language and social justice. They received a Marie Curie PhD fellowship at Ulster University and subsequently worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Cecilia also served as a research associate for the Esperantic Studies Foundation as the 2023 Marjorie Boulton Fellow in linguistic justice.

Nataša Pantić

Nataša Pantić

Dr Nataša Pantić is a Senior Lecturer (associate professor) at the University of Edinburgh, School of Education. Much of her recent work has focused on teachers and their education as agents of change. She has published extensively on teachers’ work in the contexts of social and cultural diversity. In her current research she uses mixed-method social network analysis to examine how teachers interact with other actors to address educational inequalities and support all students, especially the vulnerable ones. Since 2002 she has engaged in numerous research and reform projects, both as an academic, and in various consultancy roles for international organisations. She is passionate about educational research and its impact on change in education to address some of the biggest social challenges of our time, such as migration.

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Citation

https://doi.org/10.57708/bgwawydhntqgv-wk-miiskg
Gialdini, C., & Nataša Pantić. Teachers’ Roles in Integration of Migrant Students: Lessons Learned from Scotland, Finland and Sweden. https://doi.org/10.57708/BGWAWYDHNTQGV-WK-MIISKG

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