Going to school is the best thing that can happen to a refugee child

Thursday 18, October 2007 The city of Debrecen takes the lead in reforming the funding scheme of refugee education in Hungary Debrecen, October 18 (UNHCR) – “We have been teaching refugee children since 1989, but as a school with ‘irregular pupils’ we have always faced funding problems. The system of […]

Thursday 18, October 2007

The city of Debrecen takes the lead in reforming the funding scheme of refugee education in Hungary

Debrecen, October 18 (UNHCR) – “We have been teaching refugee children since 1989, but as a school with ‘irregular pupils’ we have always faced funding problems. The system of school-financing in Hungary was not designed to meet the needs of schools receiving pupils of different language skills, cultural backgrounds and constantly differing numbers” – says Mrs. Tiborné Kovács, Director of the Csapókerti Elementary School in Debrecen (NE Hungary), describing the peculiar situation of her institution.

The Csapókerti Elementary School is one of a handful of schools that receive the children living in Hungary’s refugee reception centres. Currently, it has 386 pupils, including 21 asylum-seeker and refugee children from the Debrecen refugee reception centre.

Most of the school’s problems result from the unpredictable nature of refugee arrivals. “For obvious reasons, the arrival date of refugees in an asylum country cannot be foreseen or planned. However, the Law on Public Education in Hungary expects us to report the number of children enrolled in our school by mid October, and these figures determine funding for the entire school-year” – she says.

Numbers matter all the more, as a standard lower elementary school class in Hungary must have between 21 and 26 children to get funded by the state. With changing refugee numbers, however, such a constant class size is impossible to maintain. “The unexpected arrival or departure of refugee kids can turn the delicate balance of numbers and funding upside down. If we have less than 21 children in a class, we lose the funding and we have to distribute children among other classes and separate the redundant teacher.” – says Mrs. Kovács.

But for refugee kids, their distribution among normal Hungarian classes is not always a good solution. Most of them do not speak any Hungarian when they arrive, and even if they pick up the language relatively quickly, it takes months before they are able to follow the curriculum.

Therefore, despite the uncertain funding by the state, the Csapókerti Elementary School chose two years ago to run a separate “international preparatory class” for refugee children. Currently, this class has eleven children from three different countries and six different age groups in it. After a few months of intensive language training they will be able to join fellow Hungarian pupils in normal classes.

To find a sustainable solution to the situation of the school, the Director has recently contacted UNHCR Budapest for help. The UN Refugee Agency organized a meeting in Debrecen in mid October with refugee and education experts and authorities.

“Going to school is the best thing that can happen to a refugee child. But municipalities are not in a position to solve the financing of refugee education alone. They need funding by the state budget.” – said Deputy Mayor of Debrecen, Mr. János D. Halász.

The Municipality of Debrecen wants to support the Csapókerti Elementary School. Therefore, the Deputy Mayor’s Office will develop an innovative funding model and submit it to the Ministry of Education by mid November.

According to Mrs. Katalin Pappné Gyulai, Head of the municipality’s Education Department, it would be important to grant a special education status to refugee children. “These children have special needs which are best met if they study in smaller classes with more teachers than average Hungarian children.”

“UNHCR is fully supporting the initiative of the Csapókerti School and the Deputy Mayor’s Office in Debrecen. A new funding model could solve the problem of many more schools in Hungary and it could put an end to a long story of problems in refugee education” – says Lloyd Dakin, Regional Representative of the UN Refugee Agency in Budapest.

Andrea Szobolits in Debrecen, Hungary