Education puts refugees on the ‘journey to hope’

Millions of children who have fled war and conflict are now missing out on vital learning. Our schools can help, but they need support, writes one union leader
27th January 2017, 12:00am
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Education puts refugees on the ‘journey to hope’

With war, conflict and political turmoil chasing ordinary people from their homes, good-quality education is crucial to help forcibly displaced people to rebuild their lives. While education is not the only solution, there is definitely no solution without it - but there are significant challenges to refugees accessing education.

Why is it a crisis? The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently reported that there were around 65.3 million forcibly displaced people globally, a third of whom were considered to be refugees ( About half of the refugees under the UNHCR mandate were children: 6 million were of school age, many separated from families or travelling alone.

Because refugees typically spend about 20 years in exile, a refugee child has little prospect of returning home before adulthood and their only access to education is in their host country. Unaccompanied minors need shelter, food, healthcare, education and protection from abuse, but too frequently young migrants in transit spend extended periods out of education. In many cases, youngsters are waiting until they reach their destination, or they are denied the opportunity to learn because of a lack of resources and teachers.

Of the 6 million children under the UNHCR mandate, about 3.7 million had no school; refugee children are five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children. Globally, 90 per cent of children receive primary education, but among refugees this proportion drops to 50 per cent. As children get older, this situation deteriorates further: 84 per cent of adolescents attend lower secondary, but only 22 per cent of refugees have the same opportunity. Just 1 per cent of refugees find university places, compared with a global figure of 34 per cent.

Can’t we just wait for things to improve? Regrettably, these migration trends may not be temporary. Blinkered approaches from some right-wing populist politicians are risky, stirring up resentment and storing up problems. The UN’s sustainable development goals ( and the imperative to support security, democracy and sustainable development mean that the European Union, governments, civil society and the trade union movement must stand together to respect the rights of all people.

What is government doing about it? According to UK figures (, the country has the ninth-highest number of EU asylum applications, sitting way behind Germany, Sweden and Hungary. Unlike transit countries such as Greece and Italy, where many local people and volunteers make extraordinary efforts to balance arriving migrants’ needs with those of local permanent populations, there are some challenges the UK does not have to face.

Scotland leads the way

Scotland last year welcomed more Syrian refugees than any other part of the UK, settling a disproportionately large number compared with the population, and some local authorities have been commended for their leadership in this respect.

As a comparatively wealthy destination country, with a policy called Getting it Right for Every Child (, Scotland is well placed to welcome settling refugees, but improving communication and proper staff support are still important. Schools need assistance to be able to give extra attention to young refugees (for example, intensive language learning and trauma counselling) and professional development is necessary to help teachers meet refugees’ educational needs. There is a risk that schools’ ability to cope will be stretched beyond reasonable limits by further resource reductions.

What are unions doing? Education International (EI), the world’s largest federation of teaching unions, recently brought together refugees, union leaders, refugee teachers, education ministers and international experts in Stockholm to launch international dialogue. Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, demonstrated his findings that migrants and refugees perform better in countries with inclusive public school systems, and induction programmes and language courses are the first steps to successful integration (

The discussions addressed challenges confronting classroom teachers, and delegates agreed action points to improve refugee education in their home countries. EI is now developing a collaborative global teaching network for sharing educational resources and pedagogical communication.

What about teacher shortages? EI is establishing ways to assist forcibly displaced teachers to become qualified teachers in their host countries, for example by helping to locate qualifications paperwork, which can sometimes be difficult.

As Filippo Grandi, the current UNHCR, said: “Refugees have skills, ideas, hopes and dreams. They are also tough, resilient and creative, with the energy and drive to shape their own destinies, given the chance.”

It is tremendously important to identify and recognise forcibly displaced people’s’ prior learning, acquired skills and qualifications. This is essential for self-esteem and financial security, and to enable them to contribute to the economy of their host country.

Respect for human rights

As well as giving practical support, what can schools do? Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools programme, which is centred on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (, offers excellent opportunities for school communities to explore world citizenship, and the freely available Empowering Global Citizens course provides suggested teaching approaches.

Building a society with an understanding of human rights-based approaches starts in childhood, and respecting the rights of others helps to make schools safe places that are free of prejudice, bigotry, intolerance and bullying. Schools that are committed to respecting rights report happier, safer learning environments for everybody.

And the wider community? New ways to enhance rights teaching and language learning are also emerging. A pack recently launched by the Scotland-based Learning Through Film scheme aims to help schools, groups and social organisations deepen their understanding of human rights using short documentaries and workshops. Smartphone apps endorsed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), such as Journey2English, can help vulnerable people with little or no English to integrate into communities where opportunities for language learning may be limited.

Practically and philosophically, education works for everyone: for the refugee and the non-refugee, for the warmonger and the peacemaker, the child, the parent, the politician and the voter. John Comenius, the father of modern education and a refugee himself, wrote: “Let us have but one end in view: the welfare of humanity; and let us put aside all selfishness in consideration of language, nationality or religion.”

And in Grandi’s words: “Refugees face two journeys, one leading to hope, the other to despair. It’s up to us to help them along the right path.” Put simply, education is essential.

Euan Duncan is a guidance teacher and president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association

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