Education of Migrant Children – From Scratch to a Systemic Change?
All stakeholders involved in the education process – pupils, parents, teachers, and school principals, local and state authorities – usually deal with different but mutually interconnected challenges. The most common is an initial language barrier between pupils and teachers which is caused by poor or no command of Slovak as the language of instruction on the part of pupils and poor or no command of other, potentially auxiliary language on the part of teachers. Pupils coming from different parts of the world also face adaptation problems of different kinds and intensities while the class environments are usually not prepared in advance to receive new classmates who are somewhat strange to them.
Teachers are largely unprepared to deal with pupils of migrant background during regular classes, especially if they begin to attend school anytime during the school year. And as migration is not governed by the school schedule this is rather a rule than an exception. In addition, teachers do not have at their disposal usable methodical guidelines, textbooks and teaching materials to instruct children with different mother tongue. The number of teachers’assistants and funding for their work is generally insufficient and inflexible and their use for the education of migrant children does not have any ground in the existing legislation. Moreover, school principals, founders and local authorities usually lack awareness about the specificities of educating migrant children. They are usually not aware about the enrolment procedures and assessment tools which would be sensitive to their peculiar situation and still in the line of the existing framework.
Additional obstacles include insufficient or even impossible direct communication and cooperation between teachers and parents and within the teaching staff itself. The system in general fails to account for the specificities of educating migrant children and does not provide specific measures and resources to cover the increased demand for time and energy invested by teachers and school managements. The few existing legislative provisions are rather vaguely stipulated and allow restricted and discretional decisions of school authorities and managements not only about the immediate educational path of migrant children, but also about the scope and pace of their integration into society and the corresponding chances to succeed in their future life.
All in all, education of migrant children in Slovakia exemplifies the generally low ability of the „system” to properly detect, account for and support education of children with unique personalities, varied identities and specific needs stemming from them.
When we started to deal with the education of migrant children in Slovakia we basically had two options – either to fish for recipes and examples of good practice in the countries with longer tradition of migration and integration or to take the Slovak educational reality as a departure point for developing something from scratch. Both approaches are legitimate and both have advantages as well as hidden risks. We opted for the more laborious, time consuming and unexplored route which is, on the other hand, somehow more authentic and eventually much more rewarding.
In line with our respect and long-standing practice of collecting individual “histories” of ordinary people and strengthened by the sociological expertise of the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture we jointly entered the unexplored field by talking to those who experience education system on their own skin – the migrant children. Using the techniques of oral history we invited the group of grown-up young people who already had authentic experience with Slovak schools. We heard from them powerful stories of neglect, ignorance and condescending tolerance but also of teachers’creativity, classmates’spontaneity and joint efforts of few educational practitioners to go against or at least go by the „system”. Equipped with hardly refutable arguments we then focused on teachers. Here again we heard the stories of neglect, ignorance and non-cooperation but also of creativity and endurance of individual school principals, local authorities and parents.
In the course of five years we developed a full-fledged training program, in the meantime accredited by the Ministry of Education, which focuses on the enhancement of teachers’ skills when dealing with differences in the classroom. There is, rightly, no remark about migrants in the previous sentence as the program eventually enhances skills of teachers to deal with any peculiarity or specific need which enters their classroom.
The recipe is almost trivial. First and foremost, teachers need to sensitize themselves to the differences pupils nowadays carry with them to their schools. Walking in the shoes of otherness is one of the most effective and sustainable ways to achieve it. However, it is not usually teachers’ unwillingness but objective barriers which prevent them from doing it themselves. If you have 25-30 pupils in the class, very limited time for preparation and the use of innovative methods and if you are not rewarded for your additional effort, you are not able and motivated to apply individual approaches all the time.
After necessary sensitization the application of teaching tools may start. These are by no means ready-made or clustered according to the categories of migrant pupils. There is, in fact, no common recipe for the Chinese or Afghani pupils with poor or no command of Slovak language as there is no common recipe for children with adaptation difficulties or any other specific needs. The tools are developed by teachers themselves on the basis of information they already have or can easily get if they take some effort. By observing, researching, conducting interviews and consulting with colleagues they create an individual “profile” of a pupil and write it up in as much detail as possible. The process of elaborating profiles is empowering in itself as it invites for creative exploration, sensitive considerations and critical thinking.
The third step is to develop a model class session within any school subject, on whichever topic and in any period of the school year. The “only” requirement is to develop it in a way which would account for the needs identified in the profile and to make it interconnected with the teaching of other pupils in the class.
Once a teacher discovers the power of creating tailor-made class sessions where specific learning needs take priority before the fulfilment of curricular obligations the paradigm of their educational practice shifts irreversibly. Indeed, one session cannot make a significant difference but the sequence of such sessions, developed in some logical order and in accordance with various methodological, psychological and social aspects of learning and instruction – can lead to a sustainable change. The development of comprehensive educational plans is the last step in the journey of teachers which makes them better equipped and empowered to deal with any other differences in their classes.
The long-term training cycle delivered so far for two separate groups of teachers from around Slovakia proved it can work. The indispensable sharing of all the trials and errors along with the successfully tested tools and approaches is a crucial component of each training cycle. It sets high qualitative standards not only in the area of educating migrant children but in inclusive education of, for and with all pupils. If this can be achieved within a legislative and policy framework which is not particularly favourable for individual needs and initiatives how much better and easier it could be if the system changed?
One Slovak proverb says that so long you go with a jar for water until it breaks. Sensitization to individual needs of pupils, advancement of teachers’ practical skills and manoeuvring of school managements when trying to fit the migrant children into the existing legislative and administrative framework is a game within and, at times, on the verge of a fenced playground of national education. There are significant limitations which do not allow to move beyond it and to use the gained tools more extensively. To achieve substantial progress in inclusive education of all children you either need to extend the playground, change the rules of the game or both.
So far, a relatively low ratio of migrants living in Slovakia and a similarly low ratio of migrant children attending Slovak schools is used, tacitly or openly, as an excuse of legislators not to account for the specific conditions of educating migrant children. Ratios and numbers usually begin to bother after they exceed some proverbial threshold. However, neglect, ignorance and downplaying of the problem today are very short-sided strategies for the (near) future. By following them in the area of migrant education Slovakia is destined to repeat the same mistakes as the countries with longer tradition of migration and (failed) integration.
A recent and much more sophisticated practice is to cover inactivity or unwillingness by simply declaring “equal access” and the provision of „equal conditions” in education for all minors residing in the country. The trick is that formally equal access to education does not automatically create equal conditions and chances to succeed during schooling and later in life. Model pupils around whom the education systems are still developed simply do not exist and teachers nowadays have to deal with all kinds of specificities regardless the country of origin of their pupils. If they do not employ various additional measures the fundamentally unequal starting positions of children are not mitigated but become even bigger and often lead to early dropouts, unemployment and exclusion.
The recipe, as it happens, would be almost
trivial. In the area of migrant education it “only” requires to provide free
and easily accessible courses of the Slovak language for those who need them,
to extend the work of teacher’s assistants also for this category of children,
to ensure sufficient funding for schools and teachers which would cover their
additional work, to equip teachers with knowledge and skills to teach in
diverse classes and account for specific needs of their children and to change
the legislation and policies to better account for the school realities and
support them in becoming more open and inclusive institutions for all. But as
it happens, simple recipes are often more laborious, time consuming and
unexplored, even if they are eventually much more rewarding.
The article has been written as part of the project Migration to the Centre supported by the by the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union and the International Visegrad Fund.
This article reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.
Peter Dráľ is a trainer and project manager of various educational and research projects at Milan Šimečka Foundation in Bratislava. He focuses on the development, delivery and evaluation of inclusive educational programmes for diverse groups of young people, teachers, youth workers and other professional groups. Since 2008 he is running a programme Education of Migrant Children and currently organises a study visit on this topic for Slovak teachers and educational experts to the United Kingdom.