Expert Commentary

Diverse classrooms and attitudes toward immigrant inclusion across Western societies

2014 study from the University of London published in the European Sociological Review showing relationships between ethnically diverse classrooms and positive attitudes toward immigrants.


As economic difficulties have continued in many parts of Western society, tension over immigration has grown. Xenophobic attitudes have been voiced more publicly in European countries such as Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom, where parties hostile to immigrants have gained new ground. Right-wing protests in Dresden — formerly in East Germany and still facing nearly twice the unemployment rate as in the western part of the country — have drawn thousands. Similar tensions have erupted over immigration in the U.S., including a July 2014 episode in which angry crowds in a California town turned away a bus of unauthorized immigrants.

The major policy and political challenge is how to create a more inclusive society while maintaining social order. As António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, has noted: “Societies across the globe are becoming multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Whether we like it or not, we cannot stop this trend; it is inevitable. We do have a choice, however, in how we approach this.”

A 2012 report by scholars for the European Commission on “participatory citizenship” notes that difficult economic conditions may further exacerbate societal tensions, particularly among youth who feel disenfranchised:

In the current time of sustained economic difficulty and high unemployment, countries are turning inward toward national concerns … and historically, this has led to a rise in support for nationalistic, anti-democratic and anti-immigration movements that could in time threaten the stability of democracy and democratic values. In the current context of high levels of youth unemployment it is possible that youth can become alienated and disengaged from the system and turn to these alternatives.

One of the key mechanisms for achieving inclusion is education. But how exactly this process can be managed with cultural sensitivity and respect for difference remains an open question. A 2014 study published in the European Sociological Review, “Do Ethnically Mixed Classrooms Promote Inclusive Attitudes Towards Immigrants Everywhere? A Study Among Native Adolescents in 14 Countries,” analyzes data from a 2009 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study, taking samples of 14-year olds from Western countries. The researcher, Jan Germen Janmaat of the Institute of Education at the University of London, notes that the “literature on interethnic relations does not offer a conclusive answer” on the question of whether mixed classrooms generate more inclusion or create exclusionary situations and produce conflict. The author classifies immigrants as out-groups in the study and native students as children already residing in the country of study. While the study does not explore the specific “causal mechanisms” within the classroom relating to attitude shifts, it looks for strong correlations between students’ civic attitudes toward immigrants and the proportion of immigrant children in classrooms.

The study’s findings include:

  • “The results of this study … suggest that ethnically mixed schools are well positioned to promote inclusive out-group attitudes among native students.”
  • Out-group size (more immigrant children in classrooms) is positively related to inclusive views on immigrants in countries where second-generation migrant children outnumber first-generation migrant children (the “old immigration” countries.) There is no significant link with such views in countries where the reverse is the case (the “new immigration” states.)
  • In classes with more second-generation than first-generation students, out-group size enhances inclusive views, while it shows no relationship to such views in classes with more first-generation than second-generation students.
  • In eight countries, the link is not significant, while in only one country is it significantly negative.
  • Small proportions of immigrants do not seem to make much of a difference, as this category demonstrates only a (barely) significant positive relationship in two countries.
  • The native students in classrooms with medium proportions of immigrants are significantly more inclusive in their attitudes than the native students in all-native classrooms.
  • No effect of ethnic mixing was found in half of the countries examined. Other than Belgium and New Zealand, these countries are all new immigration states, which have never experienced large inflows of migrants before.

Janmaat concludes that policymakers should consider ethnic mixing in classrooms as a strategy to promote more inclusion between immigrant students and those already residing in the country. “There is more evidence for mixed classrooms fostering inclusive views than for their doing the opposite,” Janmaat says. However, the author warns more diverse classrooms won’t result in immediate changes in inclusion and attitudes, especially in societies seeing waves of new immigrants.

“In the current age of austerity, which is likely to enhance in-group favoritism among native groups … it becomes all the more important to assess what schools can do to promote inclusion and tolerance,” Janmaat concludes. “On the whole, the results of this study are welcome news for the advocates of desegregation…. This positive effect of ethnic mixing may well be powerful enough to override the influence of context specific factors, as this study observed such positive effects in seven countries varying widely in population size, political traditions, and ethno-linguistic composition.”


Keywords: Europe, European Union, prejudice, immigration, racism, xenophobia

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