Why learning must not stop

Leading aid agencies have called on governments to place emergency education at the heart of relief efforts in the aftermath of the Asian tsunamis.

"We must ensure that there is no interruption in schooling," said Koichiro Matsuura, Unesco's director-general; while Unicef's executive director, Carol Bellamy, said: "Nothing will signal hope more clearly than rebuilding and reopening schools."

Manoj Ranjan of ActionAid India in the Andaman Islands, where many crops and virtually all coastal buildings have been destroyed, said the first thing local people asked for was their school to be reconstructed. "They told us: 'You should at least build temporary schools'.

"The schoolteachers, most of them from the mainland, have left, so they asked us to take volunteers from their own community who are educated, and to restart the school as soon as possible."

David Archer, ActionAid's head of international education, said one of the most difficult things in crises is the complete breakdown of all normal routines. "People do not know what to do with their children. School helps children and families to get back to normal life and to deal with the trauma. A lot of schools have been commandeered as shelters or for storage.

But even if it has to be under a tree, it is important to get school started again."

Unicef is setting up temporary schools in every country affected by the disaster and is handing out "school in a box" kits containing essential items like paper, pencils and exercise books.

Save the Children said children are extremely resilient if they get proper support and opportunities for education and play. The agency is planning to rebuild schools in India and provide emergency education centres in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where an estimated 35,000 children have lost one or both parents.

Early last month, at a conference in Capetown, the aid umbrella organisation, Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies, published a set of minimum standards that aid agencies should meet in the education of the estimated 50 million children out of school due to wars and natural disasters. That figure may now be much higher.

Susan Nicolai, adviser on education in emergencies for Save the Children UK, said setting up centres for pre-school and primary children in the Iranian town of Bam after the devastating 2003 earthquake helped to heal the pain of bad experiences and develop skills. "The chance for children to talk and express what they'd been through was an important part of the process of coming back to a normal life," she said.

The INEE, whose 900 members include Unesco, the World Bank and voluntary organisations like Care International and Save the Children Alliance, believes some relief agencies fail to give emergency education sufficient priority and their efforts are unco-ordinated.

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