Worsening gaps in education for Syrian refugees: Lessons from the early education response in Jordan

Reva Dhingra
Reva Dhingra is a PhD student in Political Science at Harvard University. Prior to her graduate studies, she worked for the Syria Regional Response Unit at the International Rescue Committee and conducted research as a Fulbright scholar in Jordan.

The 2018-2019 school year opened with some worrying figures for Syrian children in Jordan. Over forty percent of an estimated 240,000 registered Syrian school-aged refugees remain out of formal school. Despite ongoing efforts, enrollment levels of about 131,000 in September remained well below the target of 170,000 children. With most refugees unlikely to return to Syria in the immediate future—the number of registered refugees increased in 2018—education while in Jordan remains a pressing concern.

Funding cuts, school and teacher quality, documentation barriers, and complex mental health and psychosocial problems among refugee children contribute to education shortfalls, but only partially explain the unexpectedly low enrollment of refugee children. The initial education response was fractured between the immediate imperative of keeping children off the streets and the long-term imperative of integrating children into formal school. As the crisis stretches into its eighth year, however, the impulses of the early education response continue to impede efforts to educate Syrian children in Jordan. Despite the best efforts of donors, NGOs, and the Jordanian government, this early approach may have inadvertently increased time out of school for children who, under government regulations, are not allowed to re-enroll after three years. As a result, many of these children will likely never be able to enroll in school again. Examining the refugee education response in Jordan offers lessons for providing education during the early stages of refugee crises.


The Early Education Response to the Syrian Crisis: An Overview

Though the Jordanian government had likely anticipated some refugees when government crackdowns against protesters in Syria intensified in late 2011, they were unprepared for the scale of displacement. As many as 3,000 refugees were crossing Jordan’s northern border each day in late 2012 and 2013. By mid-2013, more than 400,000 refugees were residing in Jordan; a further 200,000 would arrive by the same time in 2014.

The arrival of refugees taxed an already-overburdened education system. Prior to the crisis, Jordan had made strides in addressing issues in enrollment levels and educational quality through initiatives such as the 2009 Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy (ERFKE) program. Yet, severe overcrowding still plagued many schools, with some splitting students into morning and afternoon shifts. While the Jordanian Ministry of Education (MoE) scrambled to add additional teacher shifts to serve Syrian refugees, public schools were nevertheless limited by space and educational quality. By the end of 2013, at least sixty percent of refugee children in Jordan were out-of-school.

Faced with barriers to formal school, international and local organizations drew on experience from other emergency contexts in rolling out “informal” and “non-formal” education programs. While informal and non-formal education programs are broadly defined under the global Inter-Agency Network for Emergency Minimum Standards, their implementation varies widely by country. In Jordan, informal education programs in the first three years of the Syria crisis typically lasted six months or less, and could be quickly set up. They encompassed both standalone programs and remedial education for children also enrolled in public school. These programs were required to include mechanisms for transferring students to public schools after completion, depending on space and resources. Early programs also typically included psychosocial support activities, which aimed to address the psychological and social trauma of displacement, and recreational programming.

Non-formal education, on the other hand, included both home schooling and a 2003 program developed by the Ministry of Education and the NGO Questscope. The two-year program provides a GED-equivalency certificate for children and youth who, under government regulations, were not allowed to re-enroll in school. In 2015, there were already at least 60,000 Syrian children ineligible under this rule. Non-formal education in Jordan also integrates psychosocial support into its curriculum. Small class sizes, the program’s long duration, and government requirements that the program take place in public school buildings inflate the cost of implementation cost per student compared to informal education.

While these programs occurred parallel to internationally funded efforts to build, expand, and refurbish schools in the formal education system, they focused primarily on immediately reaching the highest number of children until the formal system could accommodate them. An increased awareness of the deleterious psychosocial and mental health effects of violence on children also meant that approaches integrating psychosocial support were deemed crucial. By the end of 2014, approximately 35,000 children had received either informal or non-formal education in both refugee camps and host communities.

Yet, both informal and non-formal education efforts in Jordan were plagued by coordination challenges, uneven funding, and a lack of clear pathways to formal school. Informal education programs in particular suffered from poor coordination and lack of standardization. Informal education in Jordan initially ranged from recreational activities with some basic literacy and numeracy instruction to programs that approximated a classroom environment. The multitude of organizations and lack of standardization meant that there was little consistency between programs, with different organizations developing separate curricula.

While informal education programs were also intended to include pathways to the formal system, this goal often remained out of reach. Humanitarian actors struggled to meet demand, especially in the northern governorates where many Syrian refugees were initially concentrated. School overcrowding and socioeconomic barriers facing some children – including lack of transportation, the cost of school supplies, and child labor – complicated their entrance into the formal education system, leading these children to re-enroll in informal programs rather than enter the formal education system.

Non-formal education provided a potential solution to this challenge. Graduates of the non-formal program receive a certificate enabling them to enroll in 11th grade or apply to vocational school. However, the emphasis on small class sizes and the relative costliness of the program meant that in a limited funding environment, donors instead chose to focus on informal education programs that could reach higher numbers of refugees. While non-formal education was scaled-up through USAID funding in 2015, even the expanded programs only addressed a small proportion of the total need.

The rapid onset of the refugee crisis fueled the adoption of non-formal and informal educational programs, but an emphasis on these programs resulted in short-term solutions that were not accompanied by sufficient pathways to formal school. Non-formal education could not expand quickly enough to meet runaway demand for educational services, given their high relative cost and Jordanian government restrictions on student eligibility. Despite the best efforts of early responders, these challenges and the shortcomings of early educational response programming exacerbated the difficulties of providing education for refugees in Jordan.


The Current Situation of Education for Syrian Refugees in Jordan

By 2015, development actors such as USAID were funding large-scale projects, including school construction, expansion, and rehabilitation projects, and over 200 schools include double shifts to accommodate Syrian refugees. Donors and the Jordanian government alike began prioritizing non-formal education programs, with “catch-up” and “drop out” program targets set at 15,000 and 11,000 students respectively in 2018. In 2015, UNICEF consolidated disparate informal education efforts under the Makani (“My Space”) program. Even so, programs like Makani are falling short because the gaps that characterized the early education response to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan have compounded over the years. Catch-up and drop-out programs were vastly below target as of June 2018, with only 925 and 2,359 students enrolled respectively in each program. Interviews I conducted in summer 2018 with non-formal education administrators raised additional concerns over student attrition and poor attendance.

Numerous issues have and will continue to hinder access to educational services for Syrian refugee children. Documentation requirements (despite an easing of restrictions in 2017), socioeconomic vulnerability, transportation issues, and woefully insufficient funding continue to plague the education response in Jordan. Overcrowding in schools, bullying, and insufficient teacher experience have also been cited as significant factors. In September 2018, funding gaps prompted UNICEF to cut financial support for school attendance to 45,000 students, with only 10,000 students continuing to receive assistance in defraying the costs of school supplies and transportation. Over eighty-five percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan are below the poverty line, which makes attending school especially difficult for older children.

In addition to these barriers, current solutions remain inadequate for children who have already dropped out of the education system. Jordanian laws prohibiting the enrollment of students who have been out of school for three or more years mean that many children rendered ineligible under this rule in 2015 will likely never return to school. Having only reached approximately three thousand children in 2018, current non-formal education provision falls woefully short.

Eight years since the start of the Syrian civil war, initial fears of a “lost generation” threaten to become reality. Across the region, over forty percent of all Syrian children are out-of-school—without counting the unknown number of young adults who left school while teenagers. Diminished international attention means that in Jordan, NGOs and the Jordanian government must make do with increasingly limited resources to improve the coordination and quality of informal, non-formal, and formal education for Syrian children. An increasing emphasis on early childhood education represents an effort to ensure that younger students, at least, remain in school. Efforts to expand learning support services and better integrate informal education with formal school also hold promise for preventing further dropout.


Moving Forward

Informal and non-formal education programs remain vital components of early response education provision during humanitarian crises. The flexibility of implementation for these programs, even in the face of formal school overcrowding or government exclusion, makes them critical in providing safe spaces for displaced children. By targeting children who work to support their families, live in hard-to-reach areas, or cope with psychological trauma, these programs fill a crucial role in encouraging educational growth and emotional support.

It is critical to ensure that these programs are achieving their objectives rather than inadvertently serving as a substitute for formal schooling. Achieving this goal requires improving coordination and assessment of whether programs are meeting children’s needs. Importantly, reflecting honestly on the shortfalls of previous early response efforts will enable better approaches in other contexts, such as the Rohingya displacement in Bangladesh. As funding levels remain chronically low in refugee responses worldwide, moving beyond a crisis approach to addressing the long-term needs of refugees remains an uphill battle.

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