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Executive Summary

The European Union’s role in the field of education is limited to supporting and promoting the educational policies of its Member States.  The latter retain full control in establishing their school systems and school curricula, provided that they apply the principle of equality and prohibit discrimination.

Based on Directive 77/486/EEC, EU Members are required to offer free tuition to children of workers who are nationals of another EU member state, including in particular the teaching of the official language of the host state; to train teachers for this purpose; and to promote, along with regular education, the mother tongue and culture of the country of origin.

In 2008, the European Commission opened, through its Green Paper, a debate on the issue of educating non-native language speaking children and on possible expansion of application of the 77/486/EEC to children of parents from third countries.  Results are expected to be published sometime in 2009.


At the European Union (EU) level, the issue of educating non-native language speaking children has recently gained increased attention.  This is being attributed to the transformation that the EU has undergone in the last five years, due to the greater mobility associated with the two recent enlargements,[1] in conjunction with a large influx of immigrant families.[2]

The European Commission’s 2008 Green Paper on Migration & Mobility: Challenges and Opportunities for EU Education Systems,[3]as part of its renewed social agenda, addresses the specific challenges of educating such children.[4]  Teaching the language of instruction, a key element in integrating children in the host country, is also the topic of a 2004 study on Integrating Immigrant Children into Schools in Europe,[5]supported by the Directorate General for Education and Culture of the European Commission.  Both documents employ the term “migrant children” or “immigrant children.”  Within the EU context, the term refers to children who were not born in the territory of the EU member state where they reside, irrespective of whether they are third-country nationals or citizens of another EU member state, or of irregular status.[6

In the field of education and vocational training, the EU Member States – as the European Community (EC) Treaty mandates – have the full responsibility to organize their education systems and the content thereof, based on their particular cultural and linguistic diversity, while the role of the EU is confined to supporting and supplementing their actions.[7]  The EC Treaty further stipulates that any Community action must aim at developing “the European dimension in education, particularly through the teaching and dissemination of the languages of the Member States.”[8]

The majority of the EU members, pursuant to their obligations arising from national and international legal instruments, afford non-native speaking children the basic right to education, irrespective of legal status.  At the EU level, the Charter of Fundamental Rights[9] proclaims that “everyone has the right to education and to have access to vocations and continuing training” and that “this right includes the possibility to receive free compulsory education”[10]  The right to education is inter alia recognized in Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  EU Members that are also state parties to the Convention are required to ensure that primary education is compulsory and available to all children.[11]

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Legal Framework

Several EU directives have a bearing on the education of migrant children.  Generally, discrimination on the grounds of race and ethnicity in education is prohibited by Directive 2000/43/EC.[12]  Directive 2003/9/EC[13] applies to minors who have applied for asylum or who are children of asylum seekers.  It provides for access to the education systems of the EU Members under conditions similar to those applicable to nationals of the EU Members.  Directive 2003/109/EC[14] applies to children whose parents have a legal residence and hold a long-term residence permit.  It provides a similar requirement, regarding access to school, including the award of study grants.  EU Members have the option of restricting access to their educational system by requiring proof of language proficiency.

The sole legislative measure on point is Directive 486/EEC, entitled On the Education of the Children of Migrant Workers, which was adopted by the then European Community in 1977.[15]  The Directive’s scope is limited to children of workers who are nationals of other Member States and it aims to ease the difficulties associated with the initial reception and integration of such children into the educational school system of the host state.

The 1977 Directive requires EU Members to ensure the following:[16]

  • Free tuition, including in particular the teaching of the official language or languages of the host state, provided that teaching is adapted to the individual needs of children;
  • Training and re-training of teachers who are tasked to provide tuition;
  • Promotion of the teaching of the mother tongue and culture of the country of origin of such children, along with regular education and in cooperation with the country of origin; and
  • Compliance with the provisions of this Directive and notification of the Commission of measures undertaken in compliance with its provisions.

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Policy Considerations

The Commission’s Green Paper[17] invited stakeholders to share their opinions on the future of the 1977 Directive, whether to extend its scope, since it does not apply to children from third-countries, and also on the role of the EU in assisting its Members in formulating their education policies.  Given the fact that the Directive requires EU Members to take appropriate measures to also promote the teaching of the mother tongue and culture of the country of origin, in cooperation with the country of origin, the Commission suggested that the “creation of networks and school twinning”[18]  could be used to achieve this goal.  The Commission is planning to publish the results of the survey in early 2009.[19]

The Commission has also proposed the Open Method or Coordination for Education and Training as a tool for sharing information on policy exchanges and best practices among the EU Members.[20]

In response to the Commission’s Green Paper, Hannue Takkula, a Finnish Liberal member of the European Parliament, issued, on his own initiative, a report which was debated in the Parliament on April, 1, 2009.  On April 2, 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Educating the Children of Migrants.[21] The resolution includes the following recommendations:

  • Additional financial and administrative support for language courses should be provided to legal migrants by trained staff who also understand the mother tongue of the migrants;
  • Ghetto-type schools or special classes for migrant children should be avoided; and
  • Children should be allocated to classes based on educational level and individual needs.

Programs Implemented by the EU Member States

A. Educational Models

The 2004 study on Integrating Immigrant Children into Schools in Europe, noted above, stated that European educational systems fall within two main models:

  1. An integrated model, in which immigrant children are included in mainstream education classes and taught the same curricula as native students.  Classes are composed of children of the same age or occasionally younger children.  Measures to offer support for the language of the host country are offered to individual children as needed during normal school hours;
  2. A separate model, which appears in two forms:
    • Transitional arrangements: Immigrant children are grouped together separately from other children in school temporarily in order to receive special attention suited to their needs; such children may attend some mainstream classes; and
    • Long-term arrangements: Immigrant children are grouped together for several school years according to their competence level in the language of instruction.

The study finds that these two systems often coexist within a given country.[22]  Only a few countries, such as Ireland and Scotland, follow the integrated model with additional linguistic support.  Italy is also included in this group.  However, the study also finds that within the above two basic models, the educational systems of the EU Member States offer additional measures that are often combined in integrated or separate models and fall into three categories:

  1. Measures for support designed “to compensate for the language needs” of children whose mother tongue is different from the language of instruction. Such measures are based on the idea of “linguistic immersion” in which children are directly exposed to the language of the host country and receive additional intensive individual or small-group instruction;
  2. Measures for support designed to address “the learning needs of immigrant pupils in certain areas of the curriculum” based on the educational level of children. In such cases, the contents and methods of teaching of the mainstream curriculum may be changed to; and
  3. Class sizes can be reduced to offer better child/teacher ratios.[23]

B.  Additional Findings

Teaching the language of instruction is the initial step and the salient feature of the educational systems of all EU Member States.[24]

Some Scandinavian countries, including Finland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as Cyprus, Estonia, and Latvia, offer bilingual instruction, where teachers teach in the mother language of the immigrant students and the language of instruction.

Several countries have adopted programs to teach young children the language of instruction prior to attending compulsory education.  For instance, Germany has such programs for children who were born in the country or came to Germany at a very young age.  The Flemish community in Belgium as well as Lithuania, Luxembourg, and Norway provide reception classes to children to equip them with language skills prior to attending compulsory education.  In addition, the Czech Republic, Finland, and some municipalities of Sweden offer pre-primary language instruction.

Countries that offer mainstream education, such as the Czech Republic, Germany, and Italy, often limit the number of immigrant students in a given class.[25]

Concluding Remarks

As suggested in the 2004 study on Integrating Immigrant Children into Schools in Europe,[26] teaching the language of instruction is the primary goal of schools across Europe in an effort to integrate immigrant children, while recognizing at the same time the importance of keeping in touch with the mother tongue and culture of the country of origin.

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Prepared by Theresa Papademetriou, Senior Foreign Law Specialist

April 2009

  1. In 2004, the following countries joined the EU: Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia, followed in 2007 by Bulgaria and Romania.  See Europa, Key facts and figures about the European and the Europeans, (external link) . [Back to Text]
  2. The Commission states that in Ireland, Italy, and Spain, the percentage of school students born in another country has multiplied by three or four times since 2000.  In the United Kingdom, the number of students attending schools after arriving from abroad has grown by 50 percent in two years.  See Green Paper, Migration & Mobility: Challenges and Opportunities for EU Education System 2, COM(2008) 423 final (Mar. 7, 2008), available at (external link) (PDF). [Back to Text]
  3. Id. [Back to Text]
  4. See also Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Improving Competences for the 21st Century, An Agenda for European Cooperation on School, available at uri=COM:2008:0425:FIN:EN:PDF (external link) (PDF). [Back to Text]
  5. EUROPEAN COMMISSION, EURYDICE (THE INFORMATION NETWORK ON EDUCATION IN EUROPE), INTEGRATING IMMIGRANT CHILDREN INTO SCHOOLS IN EUROPE (2004) (hereafter, EURYDICE Study), available at pdf/0_integral/045EN.pdf (external link) (PDF). A 2008 update of the study is not yet available. [Back to Text]
  6. See Green Paper, Migration & Mobility, supra note 2, at 2; EURYDICE Study, supra note 5, at 7.

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  7. European Community Treaty arts. 149, 150.  The European Commission supports and funds a number of programs that focus on the education of migrant children, such as the Lifelong Learning Program and the Youth Program, which support projects related to school integration of migrant students and social inclusion of disadvantaged youth as well as intercultural education.  For more information see, Green Paper, Migration & Mobility, supra note 2, at 12. [Back to Text]
  8. European Community Treaty art. 149, para. 1. [Back to Text]
  9. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU was signed and proclaimed by the Presidents of the European Parliament and the Commission at the Nice European Council of December 2000.  Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, available at (external link) (PDF). On December 13, 2007, the EU Members signed the Lisbon Treaty, which introduces several key amendments to the EU and EC Treaties.  Treaty of Lisbon amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty establishing the European Community, Dec. 13, 2007, available at (external link) . Upon ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by all EU Members, the Charter will acquire binding status. [Back to Text]
  10. Id. art. 14. [Back to Text]
  11. Convention on the Rights of the Child, G.A. res. 54/263, Annex II, 54 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 49) at 6 , U.N. Doc. A/54/49 (2000), entered into force Sept. 2, 1990. [Back to Text]
  12. Council Directive 2000/43/EC of 29 June 2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin 2000, O.J. (L180) 22. [Back to Text]
  13. Council Directive 2003/9/EC of 27 January 2003 laying down minimum standards for the reception of asylum seekers, 2003 O.J. (L 31) 18. [Back to Text]
  14. Council Directive 2003/109/EC of 25 November 2003 concerning the status of third-country nationals who are long-term residents, 2004 O.J. (L 16) 44. [Back to Text]
  15. Directive 486/EEC, On the Education of the Children of Migrant Workers, 1977 O.J. (L199) 32. [Back to Text]
  16. Id. arts 2-5. [Back to Text]
  17. See also NESSE, EDUCATION AND MIGRATION: STRATEGIES FOR INTEGRATING MIGRANT CHILDREN IN EUROPEAN SCHOOLS AND SOCIETIES (Apr. 2008), available at education-and-migration (external link) . [Back to Text]
  18. In 2002, the European Commission proposed that each of the 150,000 secondary schools in the EU conclude an “Internet twinning” agreement with one or more schools in other EU member or third states to encourage communication between cultures and to enable students to participate in educational projects, such as language study, cultural exchanges, or environmental issues, via the Internet.  See Press Release, The Commission Backs Generalization of School Twinning Via the Internet (June 4, 2002), available at (external link) . [Back to Text]
  19. Green Paper, Migration & Mobility, supra note 2, at 15. [Back to Text]
  20. Id. at 13. [Back to Text]
  21. European Parliament Resolution of 2 April 2009, on Educating the Children of Migrants, available at (external link) . [Back to Text]
  22. EURYDICE Study, supra note 5. [Back to Text]
  23. Id. at 44. [Back to Text]
  24. Id. [Back to Text]
  25. Id. at 45. [Back to Text]
  26. See EURYDICE Study, supra note 5. [Back to Text]

Last Updated: 06/06/2015