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Intercultural Education as an Asset for Teaching Migrant Children

Anna Borbála Bodolai | 15. 10. 13
Education plays a crucial role in the integration of immigrants into a country. It has a direct effect on labor market integration, and hence on social and cultural integration. According to various statistics, the average education level of migrants in Hungary is higher than that of Hungarians. Even so, intercultural education will play a crucial role in the continued successful education of future generation of immigrants. A few examples will be provided to show how this strategy is practiced in state and civil institutions.

Author: Bodolai Anna Borbála

Within the European Union, there have been recent attempts to measure and compare member states’ immigrant integration policies, and the level of education is a key component in each of the countries.1 Several studies have taken place in the last couple of years in Hungary too, which provide statistical data on immigrants’ level of education in Hungary. These surveys include: Immigrants in Hungary from 20092, TIMSS survey Hungary from 20113, and Immigrant Citizens Survey from 2012.4

As for the Hungarian situation, it is important to note that according to statistics, the general level of education of the Hungarian population slightly lags behind the European average.5 It is mainly immigrants in Hungary that are represented in these statistics, with individuals in the age group 20-64 having the highest levels. This means that the education level of migrants in Hungary is higher than the Hungarian average. The “Immigrants in Hungary” study of six different migrant groups (Hungarians from neighboring countries, Ukrainians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Turks, and Arabs) found that over half of all migrants have a university degree, while another 20% of them are about to obtain their degree in Hungary.6

According to current legislation, only migrant children with a regular residence permit receive access to public education, which means that Hungary falls within the category of countries that do not provide the right to education for undocumented migrant children, and due to a relatively recent amendment of the law, compulsory education is until the age of 16.

At the same time, the quality of primary education in Hungary has been questioned recently by the results of the latest PISA test. In the test, Hungarian children performed worse than in the previous examinations. While 3 years ago there was some excitement when the PISA results came out since Hungarian students improved considerably in reading, Hungarian children did worse in 2012 in all three categories than 3 years earlier. In reading they dropped by 6 points, in math 13 points, and in science 9 points.7

Nevertheless, when it comes to immigrant children’s schooling, an important aspect of educational quality is the application of intercultural education strategies. Intercultural education is referred to as a pedagogical tool or strategy which looks at multiculturalism as an asset instead of a disadvantage in community teaching and aims, among others, at the integration of migrant children through education in integrated classes.

Even though an immigrant integration strategy has not been drafted in Hungary yet, the notion of intercultural education has been present at the state policy level since the 2000s. In 2005, a handbook has been prepared for the introduction and application of intercultural education in schools, and recently two other documents have also been drafted.8 The first one is Hungary’s recent Migration Strategy, which emphasizes that the strengthening of intercultural education and training at all levels of education will be necessary in the future.9
The second one is a communiqué published by the Hungarian Ministry of Education on an intercultural education system program.10
Still, intercultural education has not yet been incorporated in any of the laws on public education. And as a result, the international education program has negligible impact in practice; this could also be the reason why Hungary received 12 points out of 100 in MIPEX III for its education policies.11

As a result of Hungary’s fragmented immigrant integration policy and strategy, civil organizations play an important role in preparing and helping teachers in applying intercultural education in primary education and giving them tools that help them in handling difficulties originating from culturally and linguistically diverse classes.

The University of Miskolc, Hungary, has developed an interesting project since 2010. The program reflects a serious difficulty in migrant children’s integration process. In Hungary, migrant children enter public education according to their age group, irrespective of their language competencies in Hungarian. As a result, in senior classes of primary school, migrant children need to cope with their disadvantage of language competencies and simultaneously need to improve their academic skills. Previously, no ancillary materials were available to migrant students and their teachers for solving this problem in integrated classes.

Within the project “StepTogether” (Együtthaladó),12 the Hungarian language competencies of migrant students in Hungarian public schools are developed in integrated classes. Short-term goals of the program are supporting migrant students’ academic progress and avoiding their dropping out, while in the long-term the program aims at facilitating their admission to secondary schools. The target groups of StepTogether are teachers working with migrant students and non-Hungarian native speaker migrant students aged between 8 and 14 with literacy skills.

A different organization active in promoting migrant children’s education is Menedék – Hungarian Association for Migrants. Since the 2000s the Association has been offering trainings for primary school teachers, and prepared handbooks for practitioners working in schools that are attended by a significant number of migrant children. Last year, the Association had a new project on intercultural education financed by the European Social Fund. In addition, a series of cultural/leisure activities were offered for children with migrant as well as Hungarian background, where the association’s volunteers and colleagues helped the realization of these meetings.

While migrants in Hungary have a very good level of education compared to even native Hungarians, the quality of Hungary’s primary school education has been questioned recently. Even though intercultural education, a highly important element in migrant children’s schooling and integration, is present in the policies, it has not yet been integrated into any law on education. Nevertheless, civil organizations are active in this field, and some successes illustrate the necessity of advancing this technique. 

1 Zaragoza Declaration. European Ministerial Conference on Integration (ZARAGOZA, 15 and 16 April 2010 ) Available here

2 The project was implemented by ICCR-Budapest Foundation in collaboration with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2009. The project’s webpage in Hungarian is available here

3 “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” The research was implemented in 2011 

4 The Hungarian survey was implemented by Menedék Hungarian Association for Migrants in collaboration with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2012. The Hungarian results are available here

5 Schumann, Róbert (2013) Magyarországi migránsok iskolázottsága. In: Kováts, András (ed.) (2013) Bevándorlás és integráció. (Budapest, Profilm DTP). 

6 The project was implemented by ICCR-Budapest Foundation in collaboration with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2009. The project’s webpage in Hungarian is available here

7 PISA 2012: No gold star for Hungarian education (04.12.2013) Available here

8 Útmutató az interkulturális pedagógiai program iskolai bevezetéséhez és alkalmazásához (2005) Hungarian Ministry of Education 

9 A Migrációs Stratégia és az azon alapuló, az Európai Unió által a 2014-2020 ciklusban létrehozásra kerülő Menekültügyi és Migrációs Alaphoz kapcsolódó hétéves stratégiai tervdokumentum (2013) Available in Hungarian here

10 “OM közlemény a külföldi állampolgár gyermekek, tanulók interkulturális pedagógiai rendszer szerinti óvodai nevelése és iskolai nevelése-oktatása irányelvének kiadásáról” (2013) Hungarian Ministry of Education. In Hungarian available here

11 The results for Hungary are available here

12 The webpage of the program is available here.

Anna Borbála Bodolai
Anna Borbála Bodolai is project coordinator at Menedek – Hungarian Association for Migrants, a non-profit organisation established in 1995 with the aim to represent international migrants towards the majority society and to promote their social and cultural integration. Within the framework of the project she is coordinating, free legal assistance is provided to undocumented migrant workers in order to help them in legalizing their status. Anna Borbála Bodolai is also working for ICCR-Budapest Foundation, a Hungarian think-tank in social sciences, where she coordinates a research project about European good practices of integration services. A recent graduate from the Central European University in international human rights law, she has also worked at Amnesty International Hungary and as a journalist at a Hungarian online foreign policy newspaper.
The project has been generously supported by the European Commission The "Europe for citizens" programme, International Visegrad Fund and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.
Funded by the Europe for
Citizens Programme
of the European Union
Visegrad Fund. Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Daniela Pěničková, project coordinator
Phone: (+420) 296 325 345, E-mail:

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