An Intercultural Education: who is learning to live with diversity?

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

May 21 was The World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue which emerged from a UN General Assembly resolution almost 10 years ago. A grassroots initiative is calling upon people to “Do One Thing for Diversity and Inclusion,” leading up to this Saturday. As my one thing, I decided to dig into one MIPEX finding on ‘Intercultural Education’—a new dimension within a new strand in the study.

From the indicators…

Do the school systems in Europe & North America teach all students, with or without an immigrant background, to learn and live together in a diverse society?

Few binding legal standards require Europe or the international community at large to implement intercultural education. Global actors have raised the agenda and inspired national changes through reports, recommendations, action plans, and thematic years and projects from UNESCO, European Union, and the Council of Europe. These guidelines inspired MIPEX education researcher—Alistair Ross of London Metropolitan University—to design six policy indicators on intercultural education:

  • Inclusion of intercultural education and appreciation of cultural diversity in school curriculum
  • State support for public information initiatives to promote the appreciation of cultural diversity throughout society
  • Possibility to modify school curricula and teaching materials to reflect changes in diversity of the school population
  • Adaptability of daily life at school based on cultural or religious needs to avoid exclusion of pupils
  • Measures to support bringing migrants into the teacher workforce
  • Inclusion of intercultural education and appreciation of cultural diversity for all in teacher training and professional development programmes


…to the results!

Indicator-by-indicator, MIPEX did find some ‘best practices’ scattered throughout the 31 countries, where students are exposed to an intercultural approach. Countries like Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK are changing and monitoring school curriculum so that students learn to appreciate cultural diversity throughout their day and also in specific subjects. Schools should to the needs of students with different religious and cultural backgrounds in The Netherlands, Norway, and the UK. Diversity campaigns and projects are happening across Western Europe and in Estonia. A few countries are mandating intercultural teacher trainings. Northern Europe is experimenting with measures to attract migrant teachers. Still, the study also uncovered its fair share of ‘worst practices’ where the majority of Europe’s students do not learn how to work together with people of diverse backgrounds.

Averaged together, these six indicators demonstrate each country’s commitment to intercultural education for all:

According to MIPEX, schools in most European countries and US states get uneven support for intercultural education in 2010. On average, most governments say schools ‘should’ integrate it across the curriculum so that students learn about it a little bit in several classroom settings. Some central guidance and budget line can be used for ad hoc projects or voluntary teacher trainings. But most schools retain too much discretion on intercultural education because few are inspected or evaluated about implementation. Hardly any can guarantee that teachers and school leaders are as diverse as the students they serve.

Support for intercultural education in the EU is barely halfway favourable, scoring only 41/100:

In newer EU Member States (EU12), students often receive a slightly unfavourable education in diversity. Surprisingly, implementation is also weak in recognised countries of immigration (EU15) like Austria, Denmark, France, Ireland, & Switzerland. An intercultural approach is critically absent from the curriculum in Denmark, France, Hungary, and Poland.

Only the European countries with longstanding support for intercultural education come out strong today: Belgium, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom obtained ‘favourable’ or ‘slightly favourable’ MIPEX scores. Portugal recently joined their ranks, with Luxembourg and Spain not far behind. Among traditional immigration countries, most US states are slightly behind Australian states (provisional MIPEX data) and Canadian provinces:

It’s hard to predict if this list will shrink or grow. Over the past few decades, ideological debates on multiculturalism undermined reform on intercultural education in France and Italy – and could do so in Spain. The confusing claims that ‘multiculturalism is dead’ slashed well-established support in Denmark– and could do so in The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Notwithstanding this uncertain future, a country’s investment may still pay off in the long-run. The European Commission’s Handbook on Integration and an OECD research review both confirm that effective intercultural education programmes can improve student performance and confidence, teachers’ expectations, and parental involvement. When Barbara Herman of the Free University of Brussels analysed for us the correlations between different MIPEX strands and dimensions, we also found that countries strong on intercultural education for all were much stronger in all areas of migrant education. Their policies were also more advanced on securing residence for reunited families and children, consulting migrants, targeting their specific needs on the labour market, and supporting them to organise and become equal citizens.



For more on specific policies, please see the comments from our MIPEX education experts:

ESTONIA: The Integration and Migration Foundation’s ‘Our People’ projects help schools organise social integration programmes. Its media work tries helping the public appreciate cultural diversity and ethnic minorities in Estonia. Basic and Secondary Education National Curriculum states that the culture of mankind, the culture of Europe and the culture of Estonia including that of the ethnic minorities residing in Estonia has to be represented in education content.


FINLAND: All students may learn about cultural identity and internationalism. Within the National core curriculum for basic education (2004, one of the objectives is that the pupils will come to understand the roots and diversity of their own cultures. In basic education and general upper secondary education, the pupil has right to instruction in his/her own religion if there are at least three pupils belonging to this denomination and if the parents ask for teaching to be arranged. Schools must also take into account pupils’ special dietary requirements are taken into consideration. Programmes like SPECIMA allow immigrants with complete or near-complete teacher qualifications to top-up their studies to meet the Finnish regulations.


NORWAY: Reforms to improve general education quality and outcomes slightly improved targeting needs and ‘opportunities brought by Norwegians with other cultural backgrounds.’ These goals figure in ‘Equal education in practice!’, developed since 2004 by monitoring national and international assessments (e.g. PISA). Migrants learn Norwegian at all school levels, while receiving mother tongue support, to continue developing cognitively. Multicultural education is strengthened in curricula, a national body (NAFO) and objectives for more trained and diverse teachers.


PORTUGAL: The High Commissioner for Immigration and Intercultural Dialogue leads many programmes, including Entrekulturas, public awareness-raisingshort-term teacher trainings and an observatory that also monitors cultural diversity appreciation.


SPAIN: ‘Education for Citizenship and Human Rights’ became mandatory in 2009. All students must acquire a specific skill set and understanding on citizenship rights and obligations, diversity and global social problems. Based on evidence of changes in society, government intended to end recent problems of violence, harassment, discrimination and racism among students. The final curriculum drew on European standards (e.g. Council of Europe’s Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights) and consultations with 20 social organisations, though many Catholics and conservatives objected to moral and sexual education. Respect for diversity tends to be a priority across all subjects and levels in Autonomous Communities. These were set out in LOE Statutory Law of Education in 2006. One Education Ministry project is called CREADE, Resource Centre for Attention to Cultural Diversity in Education.


UNITED KINGDOM: Since 2006, schools had legal duties to promote community cohesion, and Ofsted to inspect progress. Within the curriculum, Citizenship Education is a national subject, with ‘identity and diversity’ as a cross-curricular dimension. Though contested, it was revised using the 2007 Ajegbo report. Ofsted’s 2010 ‘Citizenship Established’ evaluation showed more confident schools and teachers. Schools must also accommodate different cultural, racial and religious needs (e.g. Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, Northern Ireland Act 1998). Teacher training and development bodies (TDA, ITTs) are reaching out to ethnic minority candidates.


UNITED STATES: Some states may include diversity education in their state education standards, and therefore it may be integrated throughout the curriculum but this is not necessarily required or practiced across all states. Big states like California, Texas, and Florida and New York require publishers to reflect diversity, which has a strong influence on textbook content nationwide. States like Illinois provide guidance on how to adapt the curriculum to the diversity in the school population. Only one-third of states require teacher candidates to study some aspect of cultural diversity in their core preparation courses, and/or to have a teaching practicum in a culturally diverse setting. States like Illinois and Texas try training and recruiting immigrant teachers.