A number of barriers are stopping refugee children in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan getting the education they need. Some steps have already been taken to remove those barriers, but there is a lot more to be done. The British Council's Rebecca Ingram explains.
There are not enough school places for refugee children
At 14.00 every weekday afternoon, a great changeover takes place in 200 schools across Lebanon. Previously, the bell marked the end of the school day, but now it signals when one group of pupils leaves and is replaced by another group eager to learn: Syrian refugees.
The two-shift system is an example of how Lebanon is adapting quickly to the huge influx of refugees to its schools. More than 200,000 refugee children are currently attending lessons in the afternoon and early evening. The system, based on existing infrastructure, provides school places at just $10 a week per head. There are plans to offer twice as many places in the future, though a further $500 million will be necessary to ensure that, across Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, every child has a place in school
Community tensions are running high
As the situation for many refugees draws out into the long term, and Lebanon becomes their home, one way of facing the challenge of educating young people seeking refuge would be to work with the national education system. However, the size of the crisis means that governments are struggling. Most refugee children are living outside the formal camp system and attending local schools, where teachers are trying to incorporate them into ordinary classes. This means that classes are bigger, so each pupil receives less attention, teachers are under pressure to teach classes with mixed language skills, and have to deal with children who are traumatised and have issues at home. Problems with the integration of refugee children, many of whom don’t have sufficient proficiency in English or French, have led to tensions, heightened by the fact that children from host communities are noticing the strains on their own education.
Financial pressures prevent children from attending school
Limited school places, however, are not the only reason Syrian refugee children are unable to go to school. Poverty, exclusion and gender discrimination are all keeping children away from the classroom.
Refugee families have often lost everything – their homes, life savings and jobs. UNHCR estimates that about one in four families are headed by women who are struggling to make ends meet as rents soar, food is unaffordable and jobs are difficult to come by. The situation is only made worse by the fact that only one in five women is in paid work.
Families are frequently reliant on cash assistance from UNHCR and the generosity of local mosques or landlords who let them stay rent-free, but often in overcrowded, run-down accommodation. Many families do not have enough to eat.
These financial pressures result in two challenges for boys and girls respectively. Boys, who are in a better position to find paid work than women, may go out to work rather than attend school. And girls, who are already at increased risk of sexual harassment and violence, can be married off early to try and ensure their safety and financial security. According to a 2014 report by UNICEF, over 30 per cent of registered marriages of Syrian refugee women in Jordan involve a girl under the age of 18. Girls married before they have finished their schooling tend to drop out and rarely return – they are also at increased risk of violence and assault. Being enrolled in secondary education means that girls across the world are six times less likely to be married than those who are not. However, for many refugee girls who have missed years of schooling, this protective environment is closed off to them. There is an urgent need for funding of programmes that support girls and women to understand and exercise their rights, and for financial support for families who are struggling to make ends meet.
Integration for refugee children made harder by language barriers
Language also continues to be a huge barrier for Syrian refugees, especially due to the plurilingual education system in Lebanon. For Syrians entering the country with little or no knowledge of English or French, this is often a reason for high drop-out rates. In Syria, foreign languages are generally not taught until secondary level, so Syrian children at schools in Lebanon have limited confidence when trying to interact in class, and understand little of the content. This mismatch in language levels is problematic, and teachers often struggle with where to place their students. It is common for older Syrian students to be placed in classes with much younger Lebanese children. This can be frustrating, and many teenagers placed in a class of seven-year-olds quickly get bored. UNCHR estimates that failure and drop-out rates among Syrian children are twice the national average for Lebanese children. According to a recent report by the World Bank, 20 per cent of Syrian refugee children drop out of school in Lebanon – the biggest problem being among children over 12 years old.
In Turkey, the language problem is even greater, as there is no shared language between refugees and the local community. This prevents Syrian refugee students from understanding the curriculum, and also excludes their parents. Community cohesion is often helped by connections between parents at school, who want to support their children's learning, but at the moment, due to the language barrier, this isn't happening.
Accounting for the impact of war and displacement beyond the school gates
It is important to provide more school places, but also to recognise that other factors prevent children from accessing education. War and displacement have a far-reaching impact beyond the school gates – children too hungry, excluded and scared to learn will need extra financial, emotional and community support to make it into the classroom and be able to learn while they are there.
The Syria donors' conference will take place in London on 4 February 2016. It will bring together international donors and actors to agree funding commitments and policy targets for Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Teachers, download the 'Living Together' education pack to bring discussions about refugees, conflict and peace into your classroom, or the 'Syria Third Space' resource pack to help your pupils gain a greater understanding of the lives of Syrian refugee children.