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Objective and Subjective Participation of Migrant and Refugee Children

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Migration is an aspect that not just had a great impact on Germany as a country but also on Germany as a society. In 2017, 23,6% of the population in Germany had a migrant background (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung 2018). This number is expected to rise since 39,1% of all children younger than five years old had a migrant background in the same year (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung 2018). Besides regular voluntary migration for work or better education, one needs to pay attention to the involuntary migration of refugees, which had increased significantly since 2015 (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung 2019).

The flow of refugees that arrived in Germany since 2015 challenged the country just as much as it gave it an opportunity to grow. Even though Germany had already experienced the arrival of a great number of refugees in the 1990s following the Bosnian war, the influx of humans into the German society required a stopgap solution to supply them with shelter, clothes, medical care, and education. As it is not clear how many refugees will decide to stay in Germany permanently, and keeping in mind that the general number of people with a migrant background is expected to rise in the future, Germany must find a way to integrate the new-comers.

Since “education is one of the most important fields of structural integration” (Koehler and Schneider 2019:1), the educational system of Germany needs to find a way to accommodate the cultural and educational differences of students with a migratory background to further their integration into society. Not addressing cultural and educational differences in school can lead to alienating a big share of the population, and mono-cultural curriculums and teaching practices “may exclude some students and fail to support them in their learning” (Akkari and Loomis 2012:137). Even though “the education of migrants may have higher costs than for non-migrants in a short-term perspective, it is a social investment in the long term” (Koehler and Schneider 2019:1–2), since “[g]ood quality education fosters social inclusion, economic growth and innovation (Koehler and Schneider 2019:1).

This paper will attempt to answer the question of what strategies can be used in Germany in order to further the integration of refugee and migrant children regarding their objective and subjective participation as outlined by Bartelheimer (2005). Firstly, the paper will explain the theoretical background of objective and subjective participation as described by Bartelheimer (2005). Secondly, it will suggest strategies to increase the objective participation of migrant and refugee children. Thirdly, other educational strategies will be explored that can increase their subjective participation.


This paper will use Bartelheimer’s distinction between objective and subjective participation to explore the integrational dimensions of different educational strategies that offer the opportunity for an increase in the integration of migrant and refugee children. The strategies chosen in this paper are intended to cover several aspects of how education can influence the integration opportunities for migrant and refugee children. They were chosen from studies on refugees in educational systems in multiple countries of Europe and from studies and handbooks provided by OECD that predominantly focus on migrant children. The duality of this paper, which refers to migrant children and refugee children, was intentional because while both groups might be challenged with a new country and a new culture, their experiences and opportunities in educational systems can differ.

Theoretical Background

The way a person is educated in childhood and early adulthood can have a great impact on their participation in society. Bartelheimer analyzed statistics on migrants and the general population and distinguished two different types of participation practiced by migrants. While objective participation refers to the possible and actual participation in the workforce (Bartelheimer 2005), subjective participation refers to migrant’s ability in the German language in written and spoken form, their intention of staying in Germany, and their identification with Germany and their country of origin (Bartelheimer 2005).

Prior to analyzing the participation of migrants, Bartelheimer stresses that even though social reports (Sozialberichterstattung) on migration are expected to report on the position of this fragment of the population in the social structure in a differentiated manner, the part of the population with a migration background is too big and diverse to be compiled into one homogenized group (2005).

Before one goes in-depth with Bartelheimer’s explanation of the participation of migrants, it is pivotal to stress that while Bartelheimer focuses on migrants, refugees do not belong to this category. While migrants are people searching for a better life, better work, or higher quality education, refugees were forced flee from war and conflict, and their application for asylum has been granted (Habitat for Humanity 2017). Refugees may have a history of migration since they left their country of origin and went to another country, but they are not migrants. This difference is crucial, especially in education, because while both migrant and refugee children can require special support in school due to language barriers or cultural differences, refugee children “often experienced trauma and times without schooling, and they are subject to legal restrictions that can also impact their access to education’ (Koehler and Schneider 2019:2), which in turn can affect their participation in the receiving society. While refugees might not be migrants, they are included in Bartelheimer’s statistics that address the aspect of citizenship of the population, since they do not have German citizenship (2005).

Objective Participation

Bartelheimer theorizes objective participation as the possible and actual participation in the workforce (2005). He describes that a person’s opportunities in the labor force can be at risk due to their history of migration, which is evident by statistical data showing both the possible and actual participation of migrants in the workforce being lower compared to the population without a migration history (Bartelheimer 2005). These statistics differ between the different groups within the population with a migration history depending on a person’s migration history, citizenship, and gender (Bartelheimer 2005). The possible participation in the workforce also depends on a country’s migration policy, since it affects who is and who is not regarded as part of the possible workforce (Bartelheimer 2005). This is observable in the statistics for resettlers that have returned to Germany. While they have a history of migration, they also have German citizenship, which leads Bartelheimer to the conclusion that non-German citizenship decreases a person’s chances for employment significantly more than any other migrational characteristic a person can embody (Bartelheimer 2005).

The difficulties migrants face in integrating into the workforce are connected to their qualifications (Bartelheimer 2005). This is evident in the comparison of statistics regarding the participation in the workforce and the professional qualifications of the population with a migration history. First-generation migrants in Germany in 2001 were nearly twice as likely to not have professional qualifications (31,2%) than the second generation (18,4%) (Bartelheimer 2005:374). This corresponds to the higher participation of the second generation in the workforce. Since the second generation was, by definition, born in Germany and therefore also participated in its educational system, it seems natural that German schools provide migrant children with knowledge and skills that increase their ability to gain a professional qualification and to participate in the labor market more than their parents.

While the second generation’s objective participation is already higher than that of the first generation, it still tends to be lower than that of the general population without a migration history (Bartelheimer 2005). This can, among other reasons, be caused by the concentration of disadvantage in schools that immigrant children go to. This concentration of disadvantage affects migrant children more than non-migrant children since “immigrant students tend to be concentrated in the same schools” (OECD 2015:8) and, at the same time, tend to be socio-economically disadvantaged (OECD 2015). OECD conducted research that analyzed the correlation of school performance, the concentration of migrant students, and their socio-economic background (2015).

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The research showed that student in schools with a high concentration of immigrants do perform worse than students in schools with a smaller concentration, but OECD stresses that it is not the concentration of immigrant students but, “rather, the concentration of socio-economic disadvantage in a school that hinders student achievement” ( 2015:8).

While there is no separate research on refugee children regarding the concentration of disadvantage in schools, it is likely that they have a similar experience to migrant children. One difference between migrant and refugee children that stands out in this regard is that in Germany, refugee children “attend preparation or introduction classes for one or two years before being transferred to regular classes” (Crul et al. 2019:6). Even though refugee children are separated from the other students, they still are affected by the concentration of disadvantage. This is because OECD based their research on schools and not on classes (2015).

To work against the concentration of disadvantage in schools, it can help to increase assistance for migrant and refugee parents in order to provide them with enough information to choose a suitable school for their children (OECD 2015), and “help [them] to overcome financial and/or logistical barriers to access the school of their choice” (OECD 2015:8). Schools teaching migrants can change their curricula and include classes that are “more appealing to students from across the socio-economic spectrum” (OECD 2015:8).

Besides the concentration of disadvantage in schools, the early tracking in the German school system, and detours caused by this can also cause lower objective participation. School children in Germany are tracked into one of three models of secondary education at the age of 10 (Koehler and Schneider 2019). Two of these models are vocational tracks and the other one is meant to prepare students for possibly attending university. Koehler and Schneider argue that the German school system is designed to reproduce social class, meaning that it was intended that workers’ children get taught the necessary skills to become workers themselves (2019). They refer to studies that concluded that “social class continues to be the single most important determinant for school careers – stronger than migration background” (Koehler and Schneider 2019:4).

The reproduction of social class in the school system and language issues can cause migrant and refugee children from families with worker backgrounds to be sorted into lower vocational tracks (Crul et al. 2019; Koehler and Schneider 2019). Furthermore, they are at a higher risk to be sorted into lower tracks if they are latecomers, which means that they joined the German school system at a later point and are sorted into a track “disregarding their actual capabilities” (Koehler and Schneider 2019:9). This can lead to them being streamed into a track that requires lower qualifications than they actually have, which leads to “ ‘detours’ in educational trajectories [and can] contribute to the risk of early school leaving” (Koehler and Schneider 2019:9) and therefore lower their objective participation.

Comparing the German tracking system with that of Sweden, the difference of the ages at which tracking takes place is especially conspicuous. In Sweden, the first ability tracking occurs at the age of fifteen (Crul et al. 2019), which gives the students more time to develop themselves independently from their ability tracking for longer than in Germany. This provides a larger timeframe for latecomers to show their abilities and make progress in language learning. The value of Swedish as a second language (SSL) is higher in Swedish schools than German as a second language (GSL) in German schools (Crul et al. 2019). While in Germany, GSL can delay the students’ educational progress, SSL in Sweden has the same value as Swedish as a core subject and is “counted as a normal entrance mark for university” (Crul et al. 2019:10).

To provide more equal opportunities for migrant and refugee children, the German school tracking system should be suspended or even abolished to give all students more time to develop their abilities and interests, and to make it more meritocratic. GSL as a substitute for German as a core subject can keep migrant and refugee children’s educational progress from being delayed and can erase the disadvantage they face due to having to learn the language.

Subjective Participation

Bartelheimer describes subjective participation as determined by a migrant’s German language ability in written and spoken form, their intention of staying in Germany, and their identification with Germany and their country of origin (Bartelheimer 2005). According to him, more than half of the second generation said of themselves that their German skills are very good in written (56%) and spoken (51,5%) form (Bartelheimer 2005). Nearly half of them (47,7%) identified as ‘predominantly German’ (Bartelheimer 2005) and 73,2% intend to stay in Germany permanently (Bartelheimer 2005). Overall, the second generation participates subjectively higher than the first generation and the group of the population without German citizenship (Bartelheimer 2005). While migrant children can belong to any of these three categories, refugee children would only be represented in the non-citizen group because they cannot be regarded as migrants, as explained in the theoretical background of this paper, for as long as they still have refugee status.

There are several strategies that can be applied to increase migrant and refugee children’s subjective participation. While the age of arrival has a great impact on the language learning progress of migrant and refugee children (OECD 2015), the way they are introduced into the school system is pivotal. Preparatory classes for migrant and refugee children are very common in Germany, and the children can be placed in those classes for one or two years (Crul et al. 2019), even though integrating them “into mainstream classes from the beginning of their schooling is associated with better outcomes than enrolling them first in preparatory language classes” (OECD 2015:10). In Sweden, “students can no longer be placed full-time in preparatory classes and no longer than two years” (Crul et al. 2019:6) but “in most cases […] the students were either quickly transferred or directly integrated in regular class” (Crul et al. 2019:6). This model can help to avoid delays in the student’s educational progress since they take part in the regular curriculum as soon as possible. To ensure that this model does not do more harm than good if implemented in the German educational system, it is important to provide additional classes to support migrant and refugee children. Sweden, for example, provides second language teachers to support students throughout their school education (Crul et al. 2019).

The early transmission of migrant and refugee children into regular classes also increases their sense of belonging and therefore, also their intention to stay in Germany, since segregating them from native students “can lead to increased negative personal and social effects such as xenophobia, social exclusion, radicalization, and violence.” (Koehler and Schneider 2019:11).


This paper explored methods that, if implemented in the German school system, can help to increase the objective and subjective participation of migrant and refugee children in society. As already illustrated in the introduction, migration plays a major role today and will continue to do so in the future. Increasing migrant and refugee children’s objective participation is pivotal to give them an opportunity to build a good and self-sustained life in which they also participate in society on a social level. By decreasing the concentration of disadvantage in schools, not just they but also native students benefit. The postponement or even abolishment of tracking give latecomers a chance to develop and prove their abilities and not be judged by their late arrival, which is not even in their hands. Increased subjective participation of migrant and refugee children can knock down language barriers between them and the native population. This is essential to work against and prevent bias regarding people with different cultural backgrounds and to create a society that is not afraid of difference but embraces it. Helping migrant and refugee children to feel like they belong, creates a connection not just to Germany but also its population, and the whole country can benefit from the new ideas, new perspectives, and new customs that they can share.

There are many more strategies the German school system could adapt to increase the integration of migrant and refugee children, but many of these strategies can only work to their full extent if the main aim of the German school system changes from the reproduction of social class to a system that supports its students on their very individual paths. While not all systems and methods work everywhere, some underlying concepts can be applied in the German educational system and should be consciously implemented and monitored to observe their effect on all students.

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Objective and Subjective Participation of Migrant and Refugee Children. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
“Objective and Subjective Participation of Migrant and Refugee Children.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
Objective and Subjective Participation of Migrant and Refugee Children. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Jan. 2023].
Objective and Subjective Participation of Migrant and Refugee Children [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Jan 30]. Available from:
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