Moving Ahead - closing the gap

UNHCR education report 2016

If it can be difficult to find a place in primary school, at secondary level the obstacles can seem insurmountable. A refugee’s schooling is likely to reach a premature end in primary school. Among the 2.5 million refugee adolescents of secondary age, nearly 2 million do not have the chance to attend secondary school. The comparison with countries where the transition to secondary school is almost taken for granted is stark. Worldwide, 84 per cent of lower secondary-age adolescents are enrolled in school. By contrast, in countries with the largest refugee populations, access to secondary education for refugees is rare: in Pakistan, 5 per cent of secondary-age refugee adolescents attend school; in Cameroon only 6 per cent; in Ethiopia, the figure is 9 per cent, while in Turkey, host to 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees, it is 13 per cent.

Secondary education is a long-term investment whose ultimate benefits can be difficult to see for a family that has lost everything, especially when adolescents can bring in much-needed cash here and now. Sending adolescents out to earn a wage through child labour is a route many refugee families find difficult to avoid, the more so if keeping them in school will present an additional financial burden because of transport costs, fees, books and pens.

Secondary education deserves urgent attention because it is there that students, their families and their communities experience the true benefits of a proper schooling. Building on the foundations of primary school, secondary education promotes social cohesion, gender equality and better health. It helps adolescents discover and develop their skills and find their role in the world. Secondary school is a bridge to vocational training, to college and university, and thus to valuable qualifications, better professional training and job prospects, and greater self-reliance for young refugees wherever the future may lead them.

If it can be tough to find a place in primary school, at secondary level the obstacles can seem insurmountable.

Without the safety net of secondary education, adolescent refugees can become increasingly vulnerable. If they are not drawn into child labour, they may grow bored or feel helpless, adrift and frustrated and thus become easy prey for recruitment by armed groups. For girls, there are the additional dangers of child marriage and teenage pregnancy, confinement to domestic labour or sexual exploitation.

Roadblocks and diversions

Secondary education is more expensive than primary. Not only does it mean higher costs for families, it also requires more specialized and qualified teachers, more advanced equipment in science and computer laboratories, and more books in better equipped libraries. Governments in developing countries have to find the resources to pay for all this, while refugee families have their own financial struggles, including the cost of transport to the fewer and more distant secondary schools that are available, textbooks, uniforms, school supplies and in some cases, school fees. UNHCR only has one-third of the budget it spends in support of primary education for secondary education, despite the urgent need and higher costs incurred.

UNHCR only has one-third of the budget it spends in support of primary education for secondary education.

Progressing to secondary school can mean having to sit exams, which excludes large numbers of children whose schooling has been interrupted for long periods. Many have followed a different curriculum in the past, and the language of instruction has been different. Besides interfering with learning, these disruptions also produce bureaucratic hurdles that can be difficult to overcome. One country may not recognize exam certificates from elsewhere, for example, or may not allow children without birth certificates or identity papers into the classroom. Children in more advanced courses at secondary level must also tackle and understand a greater complexity of knowledge and ideas. This can be a challenge for a young person learning in their own language and harder still for those studying in an unfamiliar language or dialect, often after a gap in their education.

In view of the great need and the daunting task of getting nearly 2 million young refugees into secondary education, it is clear that more creative ideas are required. Only broad partnerships between governments, development partners and humanitarian agencies, as well as the private sector and civil society, in consultation with refugees, can ensure secondary education no longer remains a distant dream for so many young people.

Ensuring continuous primary and secondary education for refugees means having a reliable and sustainable source of funding as soon as refugees begin to arrive in search of sanctuary. In Ethiopia’s Dollo Ado camps, for instance, the availability of long-term support from the IKEA Foundation for education from the beginning of the refugee influx has been an important factor in increasing enrolment and retention rates, and in providing quality education. This partnership has resulted in the enrolment of more than 43,000 children and youth over four years.

Focus on: accelerated education

Because so many children and adolescents miss out on school because of poverty, marginalization, conflict and crisis, more flexible forms of education are essential, especially where refugees are concerned. Accelerated education comprises flexible, age-appropriate programmes aimed at disadvantaged groups and overage out-of-school children and adolescents who have missed out on school or had their education interrupted.

Classrooms hosting large numbers of refugee students are tough enough for teachers who already have to deal with limited resources and facilities; having overage learners who have missed long periods of schooling in the same classroom as younger children of the correct school age makes it harder still. Besides overcrowding and different levels of ability and maturity, mixing younger and older children in one class also raises protection risks. The goal of accelerated education is to avoid such circumstances.

Working with national education ministries, UNHCR and partners aim to match accelerated programmes to the student's level of cognitive maturity and to condense primary school courses of study so that adolescents can catch up, earn the right certificates and rejoin the curriculum at the right level. In 2015, we stepped up our efforts to increase access to accelerated education, with programmes now underway in several countries including Ethiopia, Lebanon, Kenya, Syria, South Sudan and Sudan.

Displaced young people face an increasing need for more flexible education opportunities.

For example, Ethiopia has a well-established accelerated education programme (known as Alternative Basic Education, or ABE) which was developed by the education ministry in 1997, originally for rural communities but later extended to other parts of the country. The ABE programme targets children aged 11-14 and uses a condensed version of the Ethiopian curriculum, shortening the time of schooling and allowing an easy transition into formal primary school. The programme has been used in refugee camps in Ethiopia for the past 15 years and more than 12,800 overage refugee children are enrolled in 2016.

Displaced young people face an increasing need for more flexible education opportunities. In response, UNHCR has initiated an Accelerated Education Working Group, an inter-agency group of education partners that is working to provide guidance, standards and indicators for accelerated programming.

Continue to Section 4: Aiming Higher