Over the last three years of civil conflict in Syria almost three million people, 20 percent of the population, have fled the country. Another 4.7 million people are internally displaced. Of those now seeking asylum in other countries, more than 50 percent are children and youth below the age of 18. Many of these children have been out of school for over two years leading to what many have dubbed an “under-educated generation.”[i]
Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt have absorbed the bulk of refugees with Lebanon hosting 1,110,000-plus refugees, 500,000 more than Jordan, the next largest recipient. As of May 2014, 355,000 school-aged Syrian children were registered in Lebanon, only 90,000 of whom were enrolled in school. Given that the average length of displacement is nearly 20 years – longer than an entire childhood – humanitarian and development response to the crisis should not only address immediate humanitarian needs such as protection, food and housing, but also establish durable solutions that support young people’s current and future livelihoods and promote economic productivity.
This burden often falls on the host country government. As the conflict in Syria continues and the number of refugees swells, governments welcoming refugees need targeted, long-term policies to provide education and job training. Access to quality post-primary education – which includes formal secondary school, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and non-formal education – in conflict settings serves two main purposes: creating a sense of normalcy for youth and equipping young people with the skills and competencies needed to lead productive lives in their home or host countries.
Background on Post-Primary Education in Conflict
When international agencies and host governments provide education services they predominantly focus funding and programming at the primary level. This is a result of international conventions and policies, which have consistently deprioritized post-primary education. The 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 193 countries, categorizes primary education as a basic human right “compulsory and available free to all” and post-primary education as “encouraged.”
Also in 1990, education leaders met in Jomtien, Thailand where they agreed to the World Declaration on Education for All which defined the education sector’s priorities for the next decade. Secondary, post-primary and vocational education were all absent from the declaration. While it does recognize that “sound basic education is fundamental to the strengthening of higher levels of education and of scientific and technological literacy and capacity and thus to self-reliant development” there is no target for ensuring all children and youth have access to education beyond “basic education” – which in most countries reaches lower secondary grades six or seven at the most.
More recently, two policies adpoted at the turn of the century have set donor, national government and NGO policy and funding priorities for the last decade. The Millennium Development Goals called for universal primary enrollment for all boys and girls by 2015 and to eliminate gender disparities in all levels of education by the same date. The Education for All Goals, also adopted in 2000, built on the Jomtien declaration with a target-oriented goal of universal primary enrollment by 2015 and a vaguer post-primary education related goal of “ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programs.”
As a result of the increased global emphasis on basic education, access to primary education has expanded significantly. The number of primary-aged out-of-school children decreased from 102 million in 2000 to 57.2 million in 2011. However, 28.5 million of the remaining primary age out-of-school children and 20 million of the world’s 69 million out-of-school adolescents live in conflict-affected counties. With the increase in primary enrollment a greater number of students are transitioning to secondary school putting upward pressure on post-primary education institutions, though funding and education policies have not been able to meet the demand.
Post-Primary Education May Be the Best Durable Solution for Syrian Refugee Youth
Ample evidence suggests the best investment any government can make for its economic growth and development is in post-primary education. The economic returns from completing formal secondary schooling are an estimated 14 percent increase in income for young men and an 18 percent increase for young women.[ii] However, the returns to post-primary education in a developing country not plagued by conflict can vary greatly from a conflict-environment where young people face additional barriers to entry and demands on their time and resources.
In many conflict-affected environments, as is the case of Syrian refugees, more than half of the population affected is under 25.[iii] Research from multiple refugee contexts shows education is refugee youth’s number one priority, followed by the opportunity to earn a safe and dignified income.[iv] Since formal secondary school and TVET programs are frequently fee-based or unavailable in camps, young people unable to afford or access post-primary education programs may be forced to pursue coping strategies which put them at risk of abuse and exploitation (such as the military, criminal gangs, or the sex industry) or in dangerous working conditions.[v] Young women in conflict-affected regions may engage in transactional sex to earn money for school fees or to support their families putting them at risk for violence, diseases and child-pregnancy.[vi]
The competing demands between schooling and working to support already resource-scarce families can be one of the greatest challenges facing refugee youth. This is reflected in alarmingly low enrollment rates – a UNHCR study of 92 refugee camps found 73 percent of adolescent girls and 66 percent of adolescent boys to be out of school and refugee youth enrollment in non-formal education and TVET to be below 10 percent worldwide.[vii]
While the flexibility and holistic nature of formal secondary school, non-formal programs and accelerated learning programs is critical – the main factor cited in all evaluations of youth-targeted programs is the need for any post-primary education to be relevant to the workforce in the host country and/or refugee’s country of origin. In contexts were youth are confined to camps or there is not a strong local economy, post-primary education should teach youth crosscutting 21st century skills. These flexible and adaptable skills include life skills such as sexual and reproductive health, “soft skills” such as teamwork and problem solving, financial and computer literacy, and market-specific technical and vocational skills. In conflict-affected regions where there is a viable market the private sector should be engaged in designing TVET programs and skills building portions of post-primary education curricula to ensure young people are learning relevant skills for the local market.
Among the other benefits of post-primary education for refugee young men and women is the sense of normalcy created by education. Education offers hope for a better future for young people, many of who have spent their entire childhoods in displacement and fleeing conflict. Receiving a quality education is the biggest determinant of future wellbeing for refugee children. Post-primary education linked to the labor market creates agency and productive-purpose for young people who will ultimately be the future leaders of their countries of origin. Post-primary education can be particularly powerful in shaping productive notions of democracy, political participation, nation building, citizenship and individual identities at periods with youth are particularly vulnerable.[viii] Being in school or vocational training also reduces the likelihood of violence and increases youth political participation.
Best Practices for Post-Primary Education Programs for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
Prior to the conflict, the primary enrolment rate in Syria was over 90 primary – one of the highest in the region – and most children were transitioning to secondary school.[ix] Now, for refugee children and youth the combined primary and secondary enrolment rate is only 8 percent. Adolescents over the age of 12 are particularly vulnerable to being out-of school with Syrian dropout rates twice the national average for Lebanese students. The Government of Lebanon, with support from UNHCR, donor governments and NGO partners, should outline a long-term strategy for incorporating Syrian children and youth into the Lebanese public education system so the protracted refugee situation does not limit the wellbeing of Syrian youth, Lebanese youth and the region writ large. This strategy should account for language differences between Syrian and Lebanese school systems, a necessary increase in the number of schools and qualified teachers to account for the influx, and should link post-primary education to market-relevant workforce opportunities.
Post-primary education bridges the humanitarian response phase and longer-term development programming in conflict and post-conflict societies and can provide stability to young people during that transition period. One of the best ways to ensure young people are not disadvantaged from funding gaps and programming changes is by integrating youth into host country school systems.[x] This is a particularly viable option for Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon where there are no refugee camps.
Recommendations for quality post-primary education programs for Syrian refugee youth in Lebanon include:
1. Integrate youth into host country school systems to ensure humanitarian-funding gaps does not disadvantage them.
2. Allow young people to work and go to school at the same time through flexible class time or school programs that include income-generating activities.
3. Ensure TVET programs and formal secondary schooling curricula teach youth market relevant skills.
4. Consider the unique needs of young women through post-primary education programs that are flexible in timing, facilitate women’s participation through childcare provision, are culturally sensitive to the common barriers to girls’ education such as co-ed classrooms or stigma against women working, and have work placement components that allow women to generate an income and savings.
5. In contexts were youth are confined to camps or there is not a strong local economy, post-primary education should teach youth crosscutting 21st century skills such as sexual and reproductive health, “soft skills” such as teamwork and problem solving, global citizenship, financial and computer literacy, and market-specific technical and vocational skills.
6. Through formal secondary school or TVET programs, ensure Syrian refugee youth must receive formal certification or validation of their studies so that they can enroll in tertiary education or secure formal jobs in Lebanon or upon return to Syria – lack of education accreditation is one of the largest barriers to formal employment for refugee youth.
Ultimately, educating refugee youth is a good long-term strategy for the government of Lebanon because refugees with skills are more likely to return home upon the resolution of conflict than those without. Host governments that have not established policies to educate refugee children, such as the Government of Tanzania in hosting Burundian refugees, have seen detrimental effects when refugees reintegrate into their home countries – in Tanzania refugee secondary school enrollment was 23% lower than that of youth who remained in Burundi, thus when Burundian youth returned home their education level was 55% lower than those who had not fled.
There is an urgency to take lessons learned from other protracted refugee contexts and post-primary education best practices to ensure Syrian refugees in Lebanon are given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the Lebanese economy and develop their social capital. While we don’t know how long their displacement will last, quality, relevant post-primary education programs are a viable strategy to ensure a generation of Syrian youth is not failed by conflict.
[i] Watkins, Kevin. Education Without Borders: A Summary. London: A World At School, 2013.
[ii] Lloyd, Cynthia, and Juliet Young. New Lessons: The Power of Educating Adolescent Girls. Population Council, Washington, DC: Population Council, 2009.
[iii] Chaffin, Josh. An Enabling Right: Education for Youth Affected by Crisis Framing Paper 1: Education and Opportunity: Post-Primary and Income Growth. New York: INEE, 2010.
[iv] Buscher, Dale. Marginalizing Youth: How Economic Programs Fail Youth in Post-Conflict Settings. Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Youth, New York: 2008.
[v] UNESCO IIEP. "Ch 14: Post-Primary Education." In Guidebook for Planning Education in Emergencies, by UNESCO IIEP, 1-25. Paris: UNESCO, 2006.
[vi] ICRW. Girls' Insights for Building a Better World. Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women, 2013.
[vii] Ferris, Elizabeth, and Rebecca Winthrop. Education and Displacement: Assessing Conditions for Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons affected by Conflict. The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC: UNESCO EFA GMR, 2010.
[viii] United Nations. 2012. Global Education First Initiative: An Initiative of the United Nations Secretary General. New York.
[ix] Save the Children. Childhood Under Fire: The impact of two years of conflict in Syria. London: Save the Children, 2013.
[x] Anselme, Marina, and Barbara Zeus. "Education as an essential component of prevention of youth re-displacement." Forced Migration Review, no. 41 (December 2012).