Standardised elements in the Introduction Programme for Refugees
In early 2021, several standardised elements were introduced into the introduction programme for refugees. The background was a desire on the part of the central authorities to raise the quality of the programme content. These elements are designed as recommendations for content that can or must be included in the introduction programme. Standardised elements are intended to make it easier for the local authorities to provide individually adapted qualification pathways that maintain a consistently high quality.
Fafo has been commissioned by the Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi) to evaluate the incorporation of these standardised elements into the introduction programme. The evaluation will run from 2021 to 2024, and this is the first report we investigate how the various standardised elements were developed and by whom, and the expectations held by various agencies regarding the ways in which standardised elements can help improve the quality of the integration efforts. We also discuss the requirements that need to be met for these elements to function as intended, as well as the challenges that may arise when local authorities set out to apply them within the framework of the new Integration Act. The analyses are based on a combination of document analyses, qualitative interviews, network seminars and survey data. Five standardised elements have been selected for special analysis.
The standardised elements were developed in the context of a political desire to reform the introduction programme and based on documented challenges encountered by the municipalities in delivering an introduction programme of high quality that produces good results for different participants. However, national authorities’ notions of what these standardised elements should contain and how they should function in the introduction programme have changed over time, from its inception in 2017 to the launch in 2021. While the ministry initially wanted the development of standardised elements to provide both ‘building blocks’ and an overall structure for different pathways for different participants, the latter ambition has now been ensured through the amendments to the Integration Act. Different pathways for different participants are now ensured through the Act’s requirements for differentiated lengths and end goals for different groups of participants, mainly structured according to previous education and training, and existing skills. The standardised elements were therefore developed in the form of recommendations and tools for various types of content that can or should be included in the introduction programme for different participants.
The Directorate of Integration and Diversity and Skills Norway (now the Directorate for Higher Education and Skills) have led the work on producing the standardised elements, but a broad range of agencies from various services and government levels have also been involved in the development process. It is nevertheless clear that the process has been strongly influenced by political signals that have decided the priorities as well as the specific elements to be developed. The development of the standardised elements therefore appears to be a top-down process, although with some room for expert input and adjustments of their content and form.
There are high expectations when it comes to the changes that the standardised elements are to achieve in the introduction programme. The recommendations and tools provided by the standardised elements are meant to better target the introduction programme and raise the skills among those who implement the various measures and activities that will be included in the programme and improve the coordination between these sets of actors. The ministry expects the standardised elements to help even out the quality variations between different municipalities that offer introduction programmes, to ensure a consistently high programme quality. The standardised elements are also expected to constitute a useful tool for programme advisors who need to plan for different qualification pathways, as well as for other staff in the municipalities and elsewhere who implement the various elements.
We have taken a detailed look at the authorities’ expectations regarding five standardised elements that we will monitor in the years to come: Coping with Life in a New Country, Guidance Programmes for Parents, Work Placement, Fast Track and Digital Skills. While the authorities generally expect these to raise the quality, effectiveness and coherence in the participants’ programme and improve the collaboration between the agencies that are involved in its implementation, each element is also subject to quite different sets of expectations. This is quite natural, since they have been developed to address different problems in different target groups.
The new mandatory elements Coping with Life in a New Country and Guidance Programmes for Parents are expected to help resolve specific challenges among the participants. The most comprehensive expectations are probably associated with the element Coping with Life in a New Country when it comes to personal gains for participants related to a number of topics. As regards Guidance Programmes for Parents as a standardised element, this is expected to provide support and information to parents to ensure that children and adolescents have good conditions regarding their upbringing. These two elements are also mandatory for all participants and parents or parents-to-be respectively and are therefore expected to make a difference for large segments of the participant group.
The Work Placement and Fast Track elements have been developed to address challenges related to organisation and collaboration in the introduction programme, especially in terms of the participants’ transition into employment, but also the association between classroom training and work placement as a learning arena. The Work Placement element is intended to highlight the importance of clearly defined objectives and better collaboration for the work placement to function well. By describing the importance of early, close, and good collaboration, Fast Track is expected to help participants with existing skills to quickly enter the labour market. Expectations regarding the real effect of the Fast Track are unclear, however, because there is still some uncertainty as to how many participants are actual candidates for this element. The standardised Digital Skills element is expected to resolve societal challenges by helping introduction programme participants obtain digital skills at the same level as the population in general.
Most local authorities have limited experience in implementing the introduction programme within the framework of the new Integration Act. It is therefore premature to draw any definite conclusions regarding the experience obtained from local implementation. This is nevertheless a suitable time to identify the expectations that the local authorities have for the standardised elements, and whether they can foresee any challenges in implementing them.
At a general level, the expectations regarding the various standardised elements appear to be high among leaders and staff in the introduction programme as well as in the adult education services for immigrants. However, a more detailed review highlights several challenges related to how provisions can best be made to achieve the intentions behind the measures. By extension, there are some who point to stumbling blocks in the work to convert policies into practice.
The standardised elements are being introduced at a time when the framework for integration efforts is changing through the adoption of the new Integration Act. The agencies that are working with newly arrived refugees therefore need to relate to a number of changes in parallel. There is considerable uncertainty in the local authorities at what we might call the identification stage. This uncertainty not only concerns finding the right training pathway for different categories of participants, but also whether training options can be established within the defined time frames. Good introduction programmes require collaboration between multiple agencies. In a situation where the regulations change, some new forms of collaboration must be established and existing ones adjusted, and this takes time. In the meantime, weeks pass by while new participants wait for their programmes to be put in place.
In Chapter 5 of the report, we describe the challenges that the local authorities have highlighted in their efforts to implement the various standardised elements. Most of these challenges should be read with the local authorities’ more general framework conditions in mind. The settlement of refugees has been significantly reduced nationwide, and most municipalities therefore have few potential participants. This has made it difficult to establish a broad range of measures and options. Individual adaptation of training pathways is difficult to achieve when only very few people are foreseen to use these options. Moreover, the recommendations in the standardised elements make little allowance for the fact that the local authorities have widely varying preconditions for applying them in practice. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had serious repercussions for local integration efforts over the last two years. When society went into lockdown, major readjustments had to be made to ensure the refugees’ right to training and follow-up.
With the new Integration Act and the introduction of standardised elements, the central government is placing a somewhat firmer hand on the tiller for the integration efforts in the municipalities. The ambition behind this new policy is that standardisation will help achieve higher and more consistent quality. It is still too early to say whether this will lead in the right direction, but in the years to come, Fafo will monitor this work and seek to elucidate this very question. In the next reports we will investigate the extent and ways in which the local authorities implement this policy, and not least the effects that it will produce.