How intercultural education responds to migrant diversity in South Tyrol

South Tyrol is experiencing an increase in the number of migrant schoolchildren. In response, local authorities have adopted the Council of Europe’s intercultural education paradigm. Yet, as Irene Landini shows, different native groups apply the paradigm differently. There are also differences between the way the paradigm is implemented in South Tyrol and in its neighbouring province, Trentino

Migration and education in minority regions

Cultural and linguistic diversity in European schools has increased significantly in recent years. This is due in particular to an increase in the number of migrant pupils. In response, the Council of Europe has started promoting ‘intercultural education’. Its aim is to implement a mixture of language-teaching activities for migrants alongside other activities which enhance the value of migrants’ languages and cultures, and to promote dialogue with native populations.

Immigration has become a particularly hot topic for many autonomous minority regions. South Tyrol, in Northeast Italy, is a good case in point. There, a German-speaking minority coexists with the Italian-speaking locals. Politics uses consociational power-sharing mechanisms to organise group relations. The Autonomy Statute has established bilingualism in public offices, including schools. And South Tyrol's educational system is based on the principle of linguistic separatism. Parallel schools in two languages have separate administrative bodies and evaluation boards. While Italian schools began to welcome foreign students in the early 1990s, immigration in German schools has increased only since the 2000s.

Policy responses to growing migration in South Tyrol

This divided institutional context is one of the main factors affecting politics and policies that deal with migrant integration, including in local schools. It affects minority political elites (Germans) and, to a lesser extent, politicians belonging to the Italian-speaking group. Living and working in a context in which all major political and social institutions are divided along cultural/linguistic lines tends to reinforce, if not ‘freeze’, the salience of such fractures among policy-makers. Politicians operate group defence and boundary preservation. In their eyes, preserving pre-existing institutionalised boundaries is a way to safeguard each native group.

In South Tyrol, a rigid system of linguistically divided schools fails to explore intercultural opportunities

Local politicians therefore tend to see migrants as an additional group and, thus, as a threat to the pre-existing balance. Migrants are also perceived as a threat to the preservation of the language and culture of each native group. This leads to ‘groupist’ policies in several migration domains. In education, for example, Italian and German schools, and relevant administrative bodies, have formally adopted the intercultural paradigm. Yet politicians have never tried to overcome the rigid system of divided schools to explore common intercultural and inclusion measures.

So, what is the reality on the ground, in teachers' experience? Do the existing divided institutions shape teachers’ practices toward group defence and boundary preservation, similar to that at the top? To what extent does this peculiar institutional context prompt different practices from those of other Italian regions, not characterised by divided social and educational institutions?

To find out, I conducted interviews with teachers in several German and Italian primary and middle schools in the South Tyrol capital, Bolzano. I compared their answers to those of teachers in standard Italian schools (which are not characterised by divided social and educational institutions), in Trento, Trentino.

The minority’s fear of identity loss

The presence and influence of divided institutions is less important than you might imagine. The primary influence behind teachers’ strategies is, rather, their status within the broader national context. Teachers are either part of a minority linguistic/cultural group in Italy (Germans), or one of the national majority (Italians).

Teachers in German-speaking schools feel the pressure of belonging to a minority group, and fear losing their cultural and linguistic identity. German teachers thus tend to operate a group-defence logic in their educational practice.

Minority German-speaking teachers in South Tyrol fear losing their linguistic identity. Teachers in Italian schools do not experience such pressures

Teachers in Italian schools in South Tyrol, by contrast, do not experience those sort of pressures. Interestingly, despite the different institutional contexts, their strategies are far closer to those of their Italian colleagues in Trento.

German teachers are particularly concerned about the risk of the German language, and their ethnic group, being ‘substituted’ by both the new migrants and the Italian majority. Most migrant pupils in German schools struggle to speak and understand German. Their Italian tends to be stronger, because most of them live in less developed areas of the city and the surrounding province, populated mostly by Italian speakers.

In response, most teachers implement practices that are often inconsistent with the intercultural framework. Teachers attach only limited value to migrants’ languages and cultural affiliations. Most of their strategies essentially entail unilateral language courses run by language teachers.

Striking similarities between Italian schools

Teachers belonging to the Italian group in Italian schools do not experience those sorts of pressures. Most teachers in Italian schools, in Trento and in Bolzano, explicitly endorse the intercultural paradigm, and carry out intercultural activities.

Most teachers in Italian schools in Trento and Bolzano will happily carry out in-class intercultural activities, such as role play and debate

Examples are 'get to know each other' games, aimed at better understanding other students’ cultures and traditions, and fostering multiperspectivity. Exercises might include role-playing a classmate with a different cultural and linguistic background, or holding open debates about contentious, cultural topics such as women’s role in society.

However, teachers face several material constraints, and these have proved similar across all schools. Despite wanting to do more, most teachers report that schools give them inadequate teaching materials, and too little time, to carry out intercultural activities.

Which way forward?

Intercultural education along Council of Europe lines is not straightforward in a region like South Tyrol. Besides the constraints, some German-minority teachers have reservations. Yet their fears may be linked to the fact that immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon for German schools. What we are currently witnessing may merely be a phase of adaptation and experiment.

Immigration affects all schools, irrespective of differences. In the future, politicians and school practitioners should therefore start to think about advancing the intercultural paradigm through confrontation and, if possible, through joint activities.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Irene Landini
Irene Landini
Postdoctoral Researcher, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Antwerp

Irene is a social researcher specialising in international migration and immigrant integration into host societies.

She is interested in investigating the main obstacles to and the strategies prompting integration in the domains of welfare and formal education.

In January 2024 she joined the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Antwerp, on a Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) postdoctoral scholarship (a European-funded scholarship).

Irene is a member of the Network Migration and Global Mobility, and of the Edubron (Educational research with impact) research group at the University of Antwerp.

She is also a research fellow at the Centre for Migration Studies, University of Essex.



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