YEAR 2020

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Educational integration of young refugees: It depends on where you live


The way in which young refugees arrive in the German education system depends in the federal school system to a large extent on the federal state in which they live. In a new study, researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi) and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) show the influence of the education policies of federal states on the school entry of young refugees. According to the study, the refugees often waited a long time to start school, were initially often enrolled in classes for new immigrants, and attended comparatively often lower forms of school. This limits their further educational progress, in some cases early on in the integration process, due to the often low permeability of the German school system.


Fast enrollment or a longer waiting period, joint school attendance with native youth or separate classes for new immigrants - depending on the federal state, there are very different variants for integrating young people who arrive in Germany after fleeing, each with specific advantages and disadvantages. Researchers at LIfBi and MLU used data from the BMBF-funded study: “Refugees in the German Educational System” (ReGES) to examine how the different educational policies in five federal states affected the school entry of 2,415 refugee youths aged 14 to 16 who arrived in Germany between 2014 and 2018.

Long waiting time

ReGES data show that refugee youth had to wait an average of seven months after arrival before school started for them. The present study now examined factors related to the waiting time: If the young people arrived with their families in federal states that impose a time limit until compulsory schooling begins, they were enrolled in school up to two months faster than in federal states where refugees must wait until they are assigned to a municipality to enroll in school. "The ReGES data show, among other things, that the school careers of the young people surveyed were interrupted for more than one year on average overall due to the refugee flight and in the course of arriving in Germany," says Dr. Gisela Will, project coordinator of the refugee study at LIfBi and lead author of the article. She emphasizes the need to keep an eye on possible accumulations of risks in the educational paths of young refugees.

Remaining at the "Hauptschule"

Welcome classes or classes for new immigrants were set up to make it easier for young immigrants to start school. However, in some federal states, these classes were primarily established atlower school types like the "Hauptschule". The results of this study suggest that in these states, refugee students often continue their school careers in the same type of school when they transfer to a regular class and rarely attend regular classes at higher types of schools. "Young people who have fled seem to find it difficult to transfer to a higher form of school in these states," says Dr. Oliver Winkler of MLU, summarizing the findings.

Among younger people

The ReGES study shows that refugees were often not enrolled in school in an age-appropriate manner. They often learned together with significantly younger classmates. The current analysis shows that this was mostly the case in those federal states in which refugees were not to be enrolled in a specific grade level as quickly as possible, but rather at a later point in time, for example, when detailed measurements of the young people's performance levels were available. In addition to the effects on the class structure, in which young people of different age groups come together because of this practice, this also has advantages and disadvantages for the refugees themselves, according to the researchers. On the one hand, older refugees have more time to learn German before school formally ends for them. On the other hand, older refugees may feel less connected to school because they are already much more career oriented. And that in turn can have an unfavorable effect on learning.

Education policy determines the path

Overall, the ReGES data clearly show that the educational trajectories of young refugees in Germany are strongly linked to the political requirements in the federal states of arrival. In contrast family and individual characteristics of the young people, such as the educational status of their parents, do not constitute a real counterweight to the influence of legal requirements. Only in the case of the type of school attended do the parents' education and the youths' previous school performance play a somewhat more significant role.

"Refugee students and their parents have limited options for action with regard to educational participation. Assignment to a federal state is a decisive factor in determining the waiting period until school enrollment, whether one is classified according to age, and whether one attends a welcome class. The sometimes limited permeability in the German education system can further reduce the chances of refugees to attend a higher form of school where educational qualifications such as the Abitur or intermediate school certificate can be obtained directly," concludes Dr. Regina Becker, co-author of the publication.

Original Publications

Will, G.; Becker, R.; & Winkler, O. (2022): Educational Policies Matter: How Schooling Strategies Influence Refugee Adolescents’ School Participation in Lower Secondary Education in Germany. Frontiers in Sociology 7:842543.

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