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Why We Need A Global High School for Refugees

The founders of Sky School, a new education initiative for refugee youth, explain why secondary students have been neglected among efforts to support refugee education.

Written by Polly Akhurst, Mia Eskelund Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Faten Ghazal, Arabic lecturer at VHS Hanover school for higher education, teaches written and spoken Arabic to men and women at the Wilhelm-Raabe school in Hanover, Germany, in February 2016. Holger Hollemann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Amid the global crisis for refugee education, secondary education is in a particularly dire state. Only 50 percent of refugee youth are enrolled in primary education. At the secondary level, this number drops to 22 percent.

There are many reasons why secondary enrollment is so low. Some are socioeconomic: Refugee families are often under huge financial pressure and the short-term economic benefit of their teenage children working may outweigh investment in education for later returns. In Jordan, for example, 60 percent of refugee families rely on incomes earned by children.

There are also fewer funds available for refugees’ secondary education. Education projects receive only 1.4 percent of global humanitarian funding. This is usually taken from emergency budgets, even though exile is often far from short term. Stretched humanitarian aid resources tend to focus on the most basic needs: food, shelter and primary school education. The focus on education as part of the humanitarian response has therefore been on basic numeracy and literacy for the largest number of people.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR spends three times more on primary education than secondary education, and only 13 percent of its total education budget is spent on secondary education. Even when young people are enrolled, they face some of the toughest educational challenges: learning in a new language or dialect, facing cultural barriers and often-crowded classrooms with limited resources.

Meanwhile, secondary education is generally more expensive than primary, as more resources are needed for specialist teachers and learning resources.

Amid U.N. efforts to integrate refugees into national education systems, responsibility for education provision often lies with the governments of countries hosting refugees. These governments are mostly under huge strain and struggling to provide education for their own citizens as well as refugees, while aid promised by donors falls short time and time again.

For example, countries bordering Syria, like Lebanon and Jordan, have made considerable efforts to integrate refugee children into schools, recruiting additional teachers and introducing “double shifts.” Yet Human Rights Watch estimates that less than 3 percent of Syrian refugees aged 15–18 years old were enrolled in public secondary schools during the 2015–16 school year.

Missing out on secondary education has profound consequences for refugees. Students who have not completed their secondary education will have fewer opportunities to work or continue further study. Secondary education also has a protective function – students who are out of the education system are much more vulnerable to child labor, child marriage and radicalization.

There are also long-term societal consequences at stake. A recent report by Save the Children found that the effect of 2.8 million Syrian children not returning to school could cost the Syrian economy £1.46 billion annually ($1.8 billion). UNESCO estimates that there could be a shortage of 40 million tertiary-educated workers worldwide by 2020.

A few schemes are trying to bridge the gap in secondary education for refugees. United World Colleges’ (UWC)’s new Refugee Initiative aims to enroll up to 100 refugee students a year on a two-year program at one of its 17 colleges worldwide. Other private schools, such as the King’s Academy in Jordan, also offer scholarships to high-potential individuals. But such opportunities are few and far between.

Most private and not-for-profit education initiatives support informal learning at secondary level. They offer academic classes, as well as extracurricular activities, but students do not receive a qualification at the end. Most have small budgets, while the need is large.

Our new initiative, Sky School, aims to become the first international high school for refugees. Students will take academic courses inspired by the prestigious International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP), brought to refugee communities in partnership with some of the best I.B. schools in the world like UWCSEA, our first partner school. The pilot program for Sky School begins in Amman, Jordan, in September 2017.

While there is a tendency to think that there is a tech solution for everything, only 7 percent of students on average complete online courses, so Sky School will blend online and offline learning.

Recognizing that students need more than academic knowledge in order to thrive, Sky School students will also participate in an ambitious “changemaker” program, where they will gain the skills and mindset to make positive changes in their communities and societies, skills that will hopefully be used one day to help rebuild their countries.

Our ambition is to develop an international curriculum for refugees, to be used anywhere that students have limited access to education because of conflict.

We need to rethink how refugee education is delivered in order to bridge the gap in high-quality education for displaced secondary students. It is key that solutions are tailored specifically to the needs of refugee youth. Programs need to be student-centered, accredited and globally recognized, and offer flexibility to accommodate students’ circumstances and responsibilities, such as part-time work and obligations to support their families and communities.

They also need to support students in finding pathways after they finish school – whether that is going on to university locally or abroad, finding an internship or maybe setting up their own business or project.

New programs need to be innovative, inclusive and accessible and they need to have the ability to scale and reach more people. The U.N., governments, nonprofits and the private sector need to support new and different ideas that not only provide learning opportunities, but help young people achieve their hopes and dreams.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply. 

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