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The Impact of Immigration on Schools in the U.K.

By Natasha Broman, TIE Staff Writer
The Impact of Immigration on Schools in the U.K.

It will soon be a year since the U.K.’s Education Secretary Nicky Morgan revealed she had ordered a new inquiry into the impact of immigration on U.K. schools. The announcement came in the lead-up to the 2015 election, during which the issue of the impact of high numbers of non-English-speaking immigrant children on U.K. schools was put right under the spotlight.
As well as investigating the impact of mass migration on state schools, the review promises to propose new measures to support teachers in helping the growing numbers of non-English-speaking children in each class. In addition, the investigation will look at how much of a “pull factor” state education is for immigrants with families. It is thought that the increasing numbers of immigrants from both Eastern Europe and outside the EU may be partly attributed to “education tourism,” whereby families are drawn to the U.K. by the lure of free education and English language acquisition for their children.
Nearly a year on, the results of the inquiry have not yet been published. However, discussions on the impact of immigration on U.K. schools, communities, and the economy—both current and potential—are never out of the newspapers for long.
Most recently, we have seen updates on the status of the first 1,000 Syrian refugees to arrive in the U.K. back in December under the Conservative government’s scheme to resettle 20,000 Syrians living in refugee camps by 2020. These 1,000 new refugees have joined the nearly 5,000 Syrian asylum seekers allowed to stay in the U.K. since 2011.
While the number of Syrian children enrolling in U.K. schools is relatively low, it is not insignificant, and their presence in the classroom is doubtless having an effect. In one south London primary school, two Syrian sisters joined the first and fifth grades. Their arrival prompted their teacher to broach the sensitive issue of the conflict with her students, starting a conversation that had previously been left to families.
The younger sister arrived in the U.K. with alopecia, brought on, according to doctors, by the trauma she had experienced through the daily bombing of her town. Children in her class were told in advance about her condition and staff reported being extremely touched to witness the acceptance and kindness she was shown by her fellow classmates, who helped her to put her two warm hats on daily before going out to recess into the cold air.
This anecdote stands in contrast with the results of a recent research study involving 6,000 British schoolchildren between the ages of 10 and 16 questioned on their views about immigrants and non-white people living in England. The research, carried out by the charity Show Racism the Red Card (SRTRC), revealed a large amount of negativity and inaccurate understanding among students from 60 different U.K. schools.
The average estimate for the percentage of foreign-born people living in the U.K. was 47 percent, with the true figure standing at 13 percent (according to the last census in 2011). Nearly a third of students agreed with the statement “Muslims are taking over England,” while 41 percent disagreed and 19 percent did not agree that Muslims contribute positively to society in England.
Professor Hilary Pilkington from the University of Manchester said of the results, “This is not evidence of widespread racism among young people but it is clear there is a large degree of anxiety—often based on inaccurate information—about what is happening in their communities and about their own futures.”
With net annual immigration currently at around 300,000, it is inevitable that there will be a steady increase in non-British-born schoolchildren combining asylum seekers with Eastern European children, as well as those born outside of the EU whose families are looking for better financial and educational opportunities. The impact of this increase on British students’ perceptions of foreign children remains to be seen. The effect on schools, teachers, lesson delivery, and attainment, however, is promised to be thoroughly explored in Morgan’s soon-to-be-released inquiry.
Last year, teachers’ unions warned government officials that schools are struggling to cope with an influx of students who between them speak more than 300 languages. While this will be mapped in the inquiry in terms of where the pressure is felt most, what teachers have to do to support their ESL students, and what extra resources are needed, a fascinating Danish study has shown that while students in schools with a high proportion of migrant children tend to produce lower test results in the U.S., Denmark, Israel, Italy, and Norway, pupils’ performance in England tends to stay the same. Prof. Peter Jensen at Aarhus University in Denmark showed through his study that there seems to be no justification for the concerns voiced by many parents of native British children about the impact of high numbers of immigrants on their achievement.
On the findings, Mary Bousted, general secretary of The Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ Union, commented, “In areas of high immigration, teachers become more expert at bringing a first-generation immigrant child on and helping them to succeed. The more practice you have, the better you get at it.”
British teachers’ growth in expertise, brought on according to Bousted and others by soaring immigration rates, might be coming at a high price of increased pressure and stress in the workplace. This is particularly true if resources are scarce in the light of recent swingeing and highly-criticized government cuts. The forthcoming report will shed further light on this complex issue.

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