E.g., 06/30/2023
E.g., 06/30/2023
Pathways to Success for the Second Generation in Europe

Pathways to Success for the Second Generation in Europe

The successful integration of the children of immigrants is now among the foremost policy challenges for Europe. The children born to post-war migrants in Europe have finished their education and are now of working age, whether they participate in the labor market or not.

Evidence shows, however, that their opportunities and life chances are significantly inferior to those of children born to nonimmigrants.

The children of immigrants are a very diverse group. The largest two components of that group are children of labor migrants and children of migrants from former European colonies. The children of refugees are also a growing group, although most are still young.

The life chances and future careers of these groups of immigrant youth are shaped both by resources from within their own families and communities, and by the opportunities educational and social institutions provide.

This article looks at pathways to success for the children of immigrants (often called the second generation) in Europe. It focuses especially on the role of the different academic tracking systems in Europe on the children of Turkish immigrants, revealing that European countries have much to learn from each others' educational practices.

The Children of Immigrants in School

The children of immigrants are now a prominent presence in many European school districts. In Amsterdam and Rotterdam, they constitute the majority of schoolchildren; in Brussels, the second generation constitutes over 40 percent of the school-age population; in London, English is a second language for a third of all schoolchildren.

Unfortunately, the performance of these children generally lags behind children of nonimmigrants in all school-success indicators: they drop out at higher rates, repeat grades more frequently, and are concentrated in the least-challenging educational tracks.

The educational gap between the second generation and children of native-born parents is of great concern to policymakers and politicians in local and national governments.

There is an ongoing debate over whether the "new second generation" — mostly children born to migrant guest workers who arrived in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s — are able to move up the educational ladder or whether they will form a new underclass in Europe's largest cities. While such concerns are often exaggerated for political purposes, there can be no doubt that the education gap is undermining social cohesion and damaging the economic well-being of both individuals and nations.

The performance of the second generation hinges above all on two factors. First, it depends on the background characteristics of the immigrant population.

Generally, children of immigrants who bring low levels of human capital into the country are the most disadvantaged. On the continent, this means mainly the children of migrants from North Africa and Turkey. In Britain, it is the children of parents from former British colonies in South Asia and the Caribbean.

The performance of the children of refugees further demonstrates the importance of economic background. Children from better-off, educated families from Iran or Iraq tend to do well or very well, while children from rural Somalia and Ethiopia experience great difficulties in school.

Second, the performance of the second generation depends on the country of destination. The differences among countries overlay differences among immigrant groups. This is most clearly seen when we compare the same group with the same starting position in different countries. Such an exercise can potentially offer insight into practices that help or hinder the educational advancement of the second generation across countries.

Different approaches in various countries provide a unique view of what works in educational systems. The EU Member States can be seen as a natural laboratory for identifying effective practices.

The following analysis takes one group, the children of Turkish immigrants, and examines their experiences in five EU countries: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

The Case of the Turkish Second Generation

Numbering nearly 4 million, Turkish migrants form the largest immigrant group in Europe, and they reside in a number of European countries. Turkish migration followed comparable patterns everywhere.

Beginning with Germany in 1961 and ending with Sweden in 1967, European countries signed labor-migration agreements with Turkey. Labor migration peaked between 1971 and 1973, when more than half a million Turkish workers came to work in Western Europe. German industry recruited 90 percent of them.

The educational position of the Turkish second-generation in the five countries under study shows startling differences.

The greatest distinctions can be seen in the percentages of young people of Turkish origin in vocational tracks — considered the "lowest" secondary-school type in all countries. In France, about one-quarter of the Turkish second generation follows a vocational track while comparable figures stand at one-third for Belgium and the Netherlands. In Germany and Austria, the figure is between two-thirds and three-quarters.

National contexts therefore vary widely in the types of opportunities available to the Turkish second generation. One might now be tempted to conclude that France and, to a lesser extent, the Netherlands and Belgium provide the best institutional contexts for migrants, that is not the whole story. However, drop-out rates are very high in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and considerably lower in Germany and Austria.

Thus it is difficult to single out one country in which the Turkish second generation is doing better. But it is possible to identify what works well and what blocks mobility in a particular country.

Factors that Determine Children's Tracks

The educational track or pathway a child is placed on serves as a meaningful indicator of later success. There are three factors that account for the major differences in the proportions of the children of immigrants on vocational tracks in the six countries (see Table 1).

Table 1. Institutional Standards for Education in Select EU Countries
Countries School starting age Contact hours in primary school
(half day or full day)
Selection age Apprenticeship system
Austria 6 Half day 10 Yes
Belgium 2.5 Full day 14 Small scale
France 2.5 Full day 15 Very small scale*
Germany 6 Half day 10 or 12 Yes
The Netherlands 4 Full day 12 Small scale
* In France the system of apprenticeships applies mostly to an older age group compared with other countries.

The first significant disparity among countries is the age at which education begins.

In France and Belgium, Turkish second-generation children, like other children, start school at the age of 2 or 3, while in the Netherlands, children attend school at age 4. In Germany and Austria, most second-generation Turkish children only start at age 6.

Therefore, this cohort of children in France and Belgium has about three to four more years of schooling during a crucial developmental phase in which they begin learning the language of the host nation. Turkish children in the Netherlands are in the middle.

In France and Belgium, very young Turkish children regularly have to speak French (or Flemish) with both their peers and in a formal educational environment.

A second striking difference appears in the number of face-to-face contact hours with teachers during the years of compulsory schooling.

Once again, the figures are below average for Turkish pupils in Germany and Austria, especially during the first part of their educational careers.

Nine-year-olds in German schools have a total of 661 contact hours with teachers, as compared to 1,019 hours in the Netherlands, because children in Germany and Austria only attend school on a half-day basis. In fact, Turkish children in Germany receive about 10 fewer contact hours per week than those in the Netherlands.

Although children in Germany and Austria are assigned more homework, help with homework is a scant resource in Turkish families because first-generation parents are often unable to understand and read the second language and only went to school a few years themselves. This may be a serious disadvantage.

A third distinction, which in combination with the first two can culminate in serious disparities, lies in school tracking mechanisms. Selection is determined by either a national test, the advice of the teacher, or simply by the child's average grades in the year before selection.

Germany and Austria begin tracking at age 10 (or sometimes 12 in certain German Bundeslaender or federl states). In Germany, the children are channeled into one of three school levels and, in Austria, two.

Coupled with the late start in formal education and the below-average number of contact hours, Turkish second-generation pupils in Germany and Austria are thus given little time to overcome their disadvantaged starting position. In this respect, Turkish children in Germany and Austria are in the worst possible situation.

Selection in the Netherlands occurs two years later (at age 12), and France selects at age 15. In Germany and Austria, most pupils, because of the early selection, end up in a short vocational stream — called the Hauptschule, the lowest track of secondary education.

If we view all these factors together, it is little wonder that the Turkish second generation in France and Belgium enter preparatory schools for higher education at higher rates than elsewhere in Europe. Children in France and Belgium start school earlier, have more hours of face-to-face instruction, and do not undergo educational selection until a fairly advanced age.

Divergent Drop-Out Rates

Another important indicator of success is the drop-out rate, that is, the number of children who leave school without a secondary-education diploma. From this perspective, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium do much worse than Germany and Austria.

In Germany and Austria, only a very small percentage of the Turkish second generation fail to get a Hauptschule diploma or another secondary-education diploma.

In the Netherlands, the percentage of children who do not receive an equivalent diploma from lower secondary vocational education (called the Vbo) is one-and-a-half times higher than in Germany.

In France, the drop-out rate is two times as high as in Germany. The educational system in France differs from the educational system in the German-speaking countries as well as from those in Belgium and the Netherlands. Until the age of 15, children in France attend a "college."

A diploma from a "college" provides access to different types of lycées (high schools). If children do not receive a "college" diploma, they enter a vocational school. Because of the early start and the late selection, most Turkish second-generation children enter the more prestigious high schools so that, more than in any other country, members of the Turkish second generation are in a preparatory track for higher education.

However, many Turkish second-generation children in France drop out, and, as a result, often end up with no diploma at all. In short, once a child enters high school, the price of failure is higher.

In the Netherlands, a significant group of Turkish second-generation children move into a vocational track at age 12. Their situation resembles that of second-generation Turkish children in Germany who move into vocational education at age 10.

Yet the drop-out rate in the Netherlands is much higher. In comparing the situation between the vocational educational tracks in Germany and the Netherlands, three factors in particular explain the gap in drop-out rates: age, the balance between learning in the classroom and working as an apprentice, and the content of the curriculum.

First, the drop-out rate is especially high among those 16 and older. By the age of 14 or 15, most of the Turkish second generation in Germany already possess a Hauptschule diploma. At the age of 16, children in the Netherlands are still in school full time.

Second, the German vocational track focuses primarily on practical training. Pupils attend classes two days a week and are working as an apprentice the other three days.

In the lower vocational education track in the Netherlands, the period of apprenticeship, called stage, is limited. Instead, students spend half their time in classes that consist of general theoretical subjects; the rest of their time is devoted to the vocation for which they are being trained. Both the full-day schooling and the emphasis on theoretical subjects often result in an oppositional stance toward school.

The situation in Belgium is very similar to the Netherlands. In the case of France there is even more emphasis on theory, while apprenticeships are offered at an even higher age than in the Netherlands.

The Transition to the Labor Market

A significant difference among education systems in certain European countries lies in whether or not they offer a strong, well-established apprenticeship system.

In Germany and Austria, most Turkish second-generation pupils enter a dual track at the age of 14. Some Turkish second-generation individuals continue to work at the company where they apprenticed. Others can at least demonstrate two to three years of work experience to their potential new employers. Therefore, the apprenticeship track smoothes the transition to the labor market.

In countries with an apprenticeship system, unemployment among the Turkish second generation is much lower than in countries without an apprenticeship system. Thus, compared to France, where there is no apprenticeship system, the Turkish second generation in Germany and Austria are better equipped to enter the labor market. Belgium and, to a lesser extent, the Netherlands offer apprenticeship positions but not at the level of Germany.

However, the apprenticeship systems in Germany and Austria do not work perfectly. There is mounting evidence that Turkish youth benefit less from the apprenticeship system than native-born youth in both countries. It is more difficult for them to obtain a good apprenticeship position with prospects for future work, and they are more likely to drop out of the dual track.

In France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the Turkish second generation mostly have to enter the labor market on their own. Discrimination seems to play a more important role in this situation than in Germany or Austria for three reasons.

First, there is a major difference in how the Turkish second generation enters the labor market. In Germany and Austria, many of the Turkish second generation can show a diploma and their employment record as an apprentice, while many in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands can show neither a diploma nor any work experience.

Second, the decision to employ someone in Germany and Austria is based to a large extent on individual employment records. By contrast, in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, judgment is based on school qualifications. Research in France and the Netherlands shows that if employers can choose between immigrant youth and native youth with the same qualifications, immigrant youngsters are not given an equal chance.

Third, youth unemployment rates, especially in France, are much higher than in Germany and Austria. Research shows that discrimination is more widespread when there is tough competition in the labor market. In contrast, employers cannot afford to discriminate when labor markets are tight.


Comparing these countries shows the importance of institutional standards, such as the age at which formal schooling begins and the number of instructional hours, and of early or late selection in secondary education. Also significant is the method of transition to the labor market. The role of ethnic discrimination also must be considered.

It is tempting to compile an ideal educational experience for children of immigrants from the country examples explored here. Doing so would not do justice to the different social, economic, and historical contexts that have shaped the educational systems of each of these countries.

However, there are a few options for improving the situation of second-generation children in Europe that are unlikely to stigmatize them or cause resentment among the native population.

One would be to lower the compulsory schooling age as a way of promoting language acquisition. A second would be to create "second chances" to help students overcome disadvantages. This could include delaying tracking for one to two years and placing students in intermediary classes.

Finally, apprentice-type programs, or ones that give students the chance to work with companies for a long period of time, could help smooth the transition into the labor market.

The comparison illustrates the need to focus more on why educational systems produce unfavorable results. The costs of adjusting school systems that block upward mobility should be placed against the societal costs of children of immigrants not finishish school, becoming long-term unemployed, or facing even worse outcomes.

This article is part of a series on the second generation in the United States, supported in part by the Russell Sage Foundation. For other articles in this series, click here.

The article is based on a policy brief prepared for the Transatlantic Task Force on Immigration and Integration, which MPI has co-convened with Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung.


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