Failure to invest in better support for immigrant pupils could cost European governments far more in the long run through disaffection and unemployment, warns a top official with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Andreas Schleicher, of the Paris-based organisation, said research showed it was wrong for countries like Britain to assume that second-generation immigrant children do not need the same support as recent arrivals. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are channelled into the worst schools, often where immigrants make up more than half the roll. And too often teachers expect too little of them, he said.
"Migration is likely to remain high and will even increase, so European countries must respond more effectively to cultural diversity," Mr Schleicher said.
More language support and back-up classes are needed to avoid a spiral of underachievement in some immigrant communities, he said.
Mr Schleicher was commenting on a new OECD study of 17 countries with substantial foreign-born populations. This found that immigrant children in 12 European countries are two years behind their peers at school. A sizeable gap remains, even after accounting for socio-economic factors, Mr Schleicher said.
And, in a damning indictment of governments' policies, the report found that in some countries the gap narrows only marginally for second-generation children. More than a third of immigrant children schooled entirely in the host countries still perform below baseline benchmarks for numeracy in Austria, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and the United States. These 15-year-olds have only rudimentary maths skills and are often unable even to read a bus timetable.
In other rich countries, a fifth of second-generation children lack basic numeracy skills even though they are keen to learn maths. In many of these only 10 per cent more second-generation children do better than those born abroad.
Immigrant children are most likely to succeed in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
In Europe, first-generation immigrant children performed closest to native populations in the Netherlands and Sweden, countries with well-established language support programmes in the early years, the study said.
But in other countries including Belgium, France, Norway and Switzerland as many as 40 per cent of foreign-born 15-years olds do not achieve baseline numeracy.
Language and geographical origin of the immigrant families only partly explains the variations between countries. An examination of Turkish communities in the different countries found they performed worst in Germany.
Mr Schleicher said first and second-generation Turkish children were often relegated to the lowest tier of Germany's selective schools, hampering them for life.
Although Britain did not provide enough data to enable a comparison, Mr Schleicher said evidence indicated the UK is doing better than the US and many European countries on immigrant underachievement, but not as well as Canada and Australia.
Where immigrant students succeed - a comparative review of performance and engagement in Pisa 2003 (OECD, May 2006)
DUTCH SHOW THE WAY
How three countries support their immigrant communities: Netherlands Schools get extra funding according to socio-economic background of pupils, which can be used for language support, enabling schools with many immigrants to teach them in far smaller classes, sometimes outside mainstream classes. The focus is on support at pre-school and primary levels.
Schools provide substantial language support, particularly at pre-school and primary levels. Immigrants are offered some lessons in their mother tongue to ensure they do not fall behind. Schools with many immigrants often provide mother-tongue reception classes.
Immigrants get language support in mainstream often from assistants.
Schools are under pressure to get them to hit test targets. Some councils provide extra funding for individual support.