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You are here: Home topics Education and Training in the European Union Migration and Mobility: Challenges and Opportunities for EU education systems - guide

Migration and Mobility: Challenges and Opportunities for EU education systems - guide

03 July 2008
by eub2 -- last modified 25 November 2010

A Green Paper adopted by the European Commission on 3 July 2008 opens the debate on how education policies may better address the challenges posed by immigration and internal EU mobility flows. The presence of significant numbers of migrant children has substantial implications for European education systems. Key issues are how to prevent the creation of segregated school settings, so as to improve equity in education; how to accommodate the increased diversity of mother tongues and cultural perspectives and build intercultural skills; how to adapt teaching skills and build bridges with migrant families and communities.


1. Why now?

The issue of education of migrants has been on the agenda of European co-operation for a long time. A Directive was adopted in 1977; a Commission report on the issue was published in 1994; the initial phase of the Comenius programme (1995-1999) contained a specific strand on improving education for migrants and disadvantaged minorities.

In the past ten to fifteen years, however, the situation has significantly evolved. The recent high inflows from third countries, as well as the increased intra-EU mobility following the two latest enlargements, are having a very important effect on education systems. Thus, the time is right to renew an in-depth debate on how education may better carry out its role in the social and economic integration of migrants.

Furthermore, the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue provides the right frame for launching this debate.

2. What about subsidiarity?

The content and organisation of education and training are national competences. It is at the national or regional level that strategies need to be defined and implemented. Nevertheless, Member states have expressed the will to co-operate on integration of migrants. The need to better address the education of migrant pupils has recently been underlined in several key policy documents. Among others, the European Council of 13-14 March 2008 called on Member States to improve the achievement levels of learners with a migrant background.

According to the EC Treaty (art. 149), the role of the European Community in the field of education is to promote co-operation among Member States so as to contribute to improving the quality of education systems. This is what the Commission intends to do through the debate that will be opened by the Green Paper.

3. A Green Paper would in most cases pave the way to a legislative proposal, but this cannot be the case in the field of education. Why a Green Paper, then?

It is true that education is a national competence, and that Member States are fully responsible for the organisation and content of their education systems. However, under the Lisbon Strategy, the introduction of the Open Method of Coordination has significantly boosted European-level action in the field of education and training.

Through the "Education and training 2010" work programme, Member States have voluntarily engaged to some measurable benchmarks. One of the outcomes of the Green Paper could be to reflect about the appropriateness of formulating a benchmark aimed at improving school results for children from a migrant background.

Besides, the debate that will follow the Green Paper will inform a decision on the future of Directive 77/486/CEE, whose implementation has been dissatisfactory but in which the Commission still sees some educational value.

4. What is meant by "migrant" pupils in the document?

The Green Paper addresses the issues which mainly relate to the situation of migrant pupils in a weak socio-economic position, whose disadvantage is likely to be compounded by linguistic and cultural differences between school and home. Thus, the Green Paper does not confine its analysis to the situation of a strictly defined group, nor with issues of legal status or of citizenship. In fact, drawing clear borders would be impossible in education: when looking at data, it is easy to realise that the legal status of pupils bears little importance on school performance, as the same issues affect EU nationals and third country citizens.

5. The Green Paper will address the future of Directive 486/77. Why was the Directive not fully implemented?

In order to fully understand the Directive, it should be taken into account that it was adopted in a context of bilateral agreements between countries to send/receive “guest workers”.

The principles on which this legal instrument was based were therefore: managed migration, based on bilateral agreements between Member States; relevance to Member States' citizens (the legal base being the free movement of workers); the concept of “guest workers”, who were to return to their home countries after a period (hence the importance of learning the language of the country of origin).

However, by the time the Directive was issued, bilateral agreements had stopped, because of a significant change in the economic situation. The early 1980s saw a slowdown in migration flows. Migration started again, in a substantial way, in the 1990s, but it was a much less controlled process, proceeding from a large number of third countries. The main principles underlying the Directive did not seem to apply to the European reality any more.

The other reason is that the obligations posed by the Directive are rather weak. The first part of the Directive, i.e. access to learning the language of the host country, has been implemented in all Member States who receive migrants, even though they did not transpose the Directive. The formulation of the second part (teaching of the language of origin) is very cautious (Member States are requested to "promote" such teaching in cooperation with the States of origin and in coordination with normal education).

Given the weakness of the instrument, one option would have been to repeal it. However, the two recent enlargements have enhanced its relevance. A large part of workers of foreign origin in some EU countries actually originate from EU Member States. Some countries of origin, like Lithuania and Poland, are promoting the teaching of their language to their migrated workers both because of its intrinsic value and also to ensure that they may easily reintegrate in the country, should they decide to return.

Thus, the Commission thinks it is appropriate to open a debate on whether the Directive can still make sense as it stands, or whether it needs to be reformulated or substituted with an instrument which can better take into account the changed context.

Source: European Commission

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