Securing the right to education for refugees

Anna Riggall

Education Development Trust’s Head of Research, Anna Riggall, played a key role at UNESCO’s international expert meeting on the right to education for refugees in December; here she comments on why the matter of educating refugees is at crisis point.

Anna was joined by colleagues Serena Rossignoli and Ruth Naylor; convening some 20 nations and 80 experts, the expert meeting set out to identify and discuss common and specific challenges faced by governments, identify areas where better support is needed at local, national and international levels and to refine a set of policy recommendations based on good existing practice. Education Development Trust’s research team supported UNESCO with the writing of the background paper on this topic due for publication. 

The number of displaced people is currently higher than it has been since World War II. According to UNHCR, half of the 25.4 million refugees are children. There are already a number of Declarations, Compacts and Conventions that articulate the right to education for refugees.  

So why is it still a problem? The reality is that most refugees are hosted in countries that have limited resources and education systems in need of improvement. These host countries often don’t have the capacity to provide education for all school-aged children and young people. The issues are multiple. There are legal and administrative hurdles and requirements that may exist and are complex and take a long time to sort out. Expanding access requires resource, new school buildings or the repurposing of existing school sites, introducing double shifts and arranging transportation for example. The provision of teachers is major factor. While the number of refugees of school age rises, the teacher supply crisis gets worse. Refugee families, having suffered trauma, displacement and possibly separation, can face uncertain financial security and have concerns about the safety of their children travelling to school. The children themselves may have difficulty accessing education because of language barriers, may be suffering from trauma, find working in a new and different curricular challenging and have experienced months, or years even, of missed learning. There can also be resistance and prejudice from host populations towards refugees.

The evidence and understanding about the barriers to securing the right to education for refugees is reasonably well established. Promising policy and solutions are less well documented, and this is where our own research programme is working, in some small way, to help shed light on what can be done to support the right to education for refugees.

Teachers are vital

The importance of teachers is vital when we talk about education for refugees. And let’s remember it is not just pupils who have fled insecurity and conflict, it is also teachers. Teachers can make an enormous difference to the quality of education that all children, including refugee children have access to. Teachers have been a largely ignored part of the research work in this field to date. Together with IIEP UNESCO, Education Development Trust has been working on a programme of study that identifies current international, regional, and national policies that guide ministries of education in the selection and management of teachers for refugee populations. Specifically, we want to build an evidence base of promising existing policies for cost-effective, sustainable, and conflict-sensitive management of teachers in refugee contexts and to provide policy options for governments and policymakers on selecting and managing teachers of refugees.

Case study: Ethiopia

In 2018, we published a review of the evidence, Teachers of refugees: a review of the literature, and we are currently working on the first of six country case studies in Ethiopia. In these country cases our goal is to understand what promising policies exist for the effective management of teachers in refugee contexts; what the current policies that influence teacher management in refugee contexts are; how they impact on practice of the management of teachers of refugees; and what the main challenges are that need to be overcome. 

The value of evidence that can support effective policymaking is great. Our research programme prides itself on providing analysis that speaks to those needing guidance and direction, and to those that are primarily interested in taking action. In the spirit of our own work, at the expert meeting in December 2018, UNESCO were encouraging a focus on ‘good’ or ‘inspiring’ practices. We heard stories and watched videos of practice that has supported the right to education for refugees from a range of countries including Sudan, Uganda and Greece. The fact that there are places where the practice is promising provides grounds for optimism. There is much we can learn from each other.