Barriers to refugee education

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Barriers to refugee education

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • What are the key reasons for low school attendance among refugees?
  • Why do some refugee families not want to enroll their children in a host country school system?
  • What is the role of non-profits in improving access to education for refugees?
  • How might gender affect access to education within refugee communities?
  • Share stories of success
What are the key reasons for low school attendance among refugee

There are multiple reasons for low school attendence among refugees. I thought it might be useful to start with some basic statistics (please see gaphics below).

At primary level only 50% of refugees attend primary education compared to 91% globally.

At secondary level only 22% of refugees attend secondary education compared to 84% globally.

At tertiary level only 1% of refugees attend university education compared to 34% globally.

As you can see attendence becomes lower the higher level of education you go.

These attendence levels are exasperated when it comes to gender, for every ten refugee boys in primary school there are fewer than eight girls; at secondary school the figure is worse, with fewer than seven refugee girls for every ten refugee boys.

Key approaches to achieving gender parity in education include working with communities to address and reduce barriers for girls to complete education, particularly violence, early pregnancy and marriage and household roles and responsibilities; ensuring a conducive safe teaching and learning environment; adequate sanitation and support with menstrual hygiene and ensuring consideration of gender within administrative, teacher and curriculum reforms.

Do you have any  experiences of supporting girls attendence at school, especially at upper primary or secondary?



Barriers to secondary education for Syrian refugee children

I'd like to add a few examples and more questions to Martha's, based on research that my colleagues and I have done in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. We also found that refugee children's access to secondary education is very limited, for reasons that may be common to other contexts:

  • Some of the reasons for the increased difficulty in accessing secondary as opposed to primary education are about educational resources. Children have to travel longer distances to travel to get to secondary schools, which are less numerous than primary schools. And if children can get to school, they may have trouble with a different curriculum, possibly in a different language, and with the difficulty of classes especially if they have been out of school for years. More and better catch-up classes and language training could help. 
  • Other reasons have to do with education policies, such as demands for children to provide school certificates showing they had completed lower grades in their home countries in order to enroll in secondary schools. Children may have left such certificates behind when fleeing for safety. 
  • Lack of money is a key barrier, but this is not just an issue for donors to address. In contexts where refugees are not allowed to work or work informally and face exploitatively low wages, refugee families face poverty and insecurity that create pressure for children to work or to marry -- pressures that hit children especially hard at around the time they reach secondary-school age. 
  • Refugee families see little pay-off to increased levels of education when sectors of the economy that would reward greater education with higher-paying jobs are effectively closed to them;  
  • Host governments and donors have prioritized increasing access to primary education. This is a huge, hard and obviously critical task, but the danger is a relative blind spot when it comes to the right to education of boys and girls who should be in secondary school. Lebanon, for instance, has a progressive national education plan that aims to dramatically increase overall enrollment, but nonetheless aims only to enroll a few thousand refugee children in secondary schools. In some cases, it's even hard to find key information, such as the number or percentage of 15-17 year old refugee children attending school (or not), or the percentage or amount of funding that is given for or spent on secondary education.

Some of these obstacles can only be overcome with greater financial resources for secondary education; host countries could address others by making policy changes. For instance, school documentation/certification requirements can be excessively rigid and clearly unfair for refugee children and could be made more flexible. At a broader level, if host countries did more to respect the right to work of everyone, including refugees, it could help reduce exploitation of refugee workers and increase their financial wherewithal to send their children to school.

Out of the various causes for the widespread lack of access to secondary education for refugee children, which are the most important? Have others found it useful to break down obstacles to secondary education so as to identify those that are caused by policies as opposed to those caused by lack of resources? If so, could you share some examples? 

What are the key reasons for low school attendance among refugee

Hello, and thanks so much for this plat form. I would like to first share with you an overview of one of our projects in Uganda that we carried out last year called the Bridge to Formal Schooling.

This was a pilot project that we carried out for one year and it was to help the refugee children between the age of 9 - 13 years who were not going to school to catch up with the education system here in Uganda because these children were from non English speaking countries and were facing a challenge of enrolling in classes of their choice because of the language problem.

In this project we worked with 2 teachers. one a Ugandan and the other from the refugee community so that the language problem would be solved. We worked with 2 mentors a male and a female and their role was to bridge the gap between the parents, teachers and YARID staff and the parents who were later on supported in forming a saving group so that their children stayed in school.

This pilot was carried in  one of the government schools in Kampala Uganda called Katwe Primary school. We enrolled 30 children. 16 girls and 14 boys.

These are some of the reasons that we found out as to why there was low school attendance of refugee children:

a. The langauge barrier is a challenging factor because most of these children come from non English speaking countries and this affects their attendance because the education systems are different yet in Uganda the language of instruction is English or Lugand the common local langugage in class.

b. This farther affects the parents level of incomes because it is difficult for them to get jobs to be in position to pay school fees for their children.

c. Some of the schools are located far from the area of residence of these children so this affects the children because they have to move long distances. At the end of the day this affects their attendance.

d. The lack of sanitary towels has affected some of the girls attendance because most of the girls that have gone through this experience at school and the boys get to see, they are affected psychologically.

e. The mindset of some of the refugee parents towards the education of refugee girls. They take girls to be for marriage and not education.

f. Resettlement: Some of the parents ignore taking their children to school and only think about resettlement as a durable solution which is a bad idea towards their children's education.

g. Some of the children have grown up and they feel going to a lower class would not help them yet they can not even handle a lower class.


Bridge to Formal Schooling

Thanks for telling us aobut Bridge to Formal Schooling! It sounds like an interesting approach to surmounting some of the barriers refugee children face in accessing their education. What suggestions would you have for another organization trying to carry out a similar program at another school? In other words, what were the most important lessons learned from the pilot program?

Lessons Learned from the pilot of our BFS Program

These were the leanings from our Bridge to Formal Schooling pilot phase

We learned that instruction in three languages sped up the children’s learning considerably. We had worried that teaching in both Swahili, French, and English would decrease each learner’s proficiency in English. But we actually found that the children were more confident, better able to learn, and able to ask questions when they did not understand.

We also learned that having a Ugandan national as one of the teachers and holding the classes at Katwe Primary School helped the students integrate into the Ugandan school system. Our learners did not struggle too much with the new schedule or language of instruction.

In fact, we learned that relative to less formal instruction methods, classroom learning was the best way to accelerate our students’ progress. We also prototyped the use of self-study materials in two languages and the use of informal education, like trips to the zoo or the market. Though each of those two methods had some advantages, neither were as reliable or as efficient as teaching our students in a formal classroom setting.

As we talked to the parents, we learned that they could be convinced of the value of education and that with proper savings and financial training, they would be willing to financially support their children after the BFS program ended. There is a cultural devaluation of education in many countries in East and Central Africa, especially for girls. Fortunately, we learned that parents were receptive to working with our mentors and if we supported them, they could support their children long beyond the end of our program.

We learnt that the involvement of the teacher from the refugee and host community was a good combination for education delivery for a catch program for refugee children because English and their local language was the media of communication and this would be something to be considered in the future this is because during the pilot phase all the 30 children were in position to integrate into formal school with minor challenges.

Mentors in this program were too instrumental and this was because they bridged the gap between the teachers and the parents and changing the mindset of the parents and children through the mentorship process. The mentors always carried out home visits and would find out why some of the children were not attending school regularly, dozing in class while the teachers were teaching and this helped the teachers to come up with better ways to support them.

For children to have such a program in a school setting was something good because it enabled the children integrate into the school system easily. In case it was your first time to come to the school, it would be impossible for one to tell that we had a pilot class because the children were wearing school uniforms

Parents forming TUMAINI Saving group was one of the most sustainable measure that was taken because the parents are managing the resources that were given to them by themselves. They save, some have managed to start and improve on their already existing business and can pay school fees for their children.

Working with the ministry of education and sports made our work easy because we had a Centre coordinating tutor who helped us with the class observation and training the teachers in different methodologies that they would use to teach these children. The lesson plans and methods of teaching were refined and this helped the learning process of the children.

We learned that we were dealing with a special group of student so we came up with a working document that contained lesson plans and suggested materials that suited our refugee children. This working document emphasized on literacy and numeracy which helped the children catch up so fast.

Lessons Learned from the pilot of our BFS Program

Thanks Elvis i'm interested to read about this approach and one key question i have is was there any accreditation from the BFS and did the students transition into formal education once they were finished?


Thank you Martha,

We participated in the OpenIDEO Challenge " How might we improve education and expand learning opportunities for refugees around the world" and our idea was chosen among the top ideas, so you can find information on that plat form.

With support from the IDEO people we were trained in Human Centred Design approach a creative way of solving problems in our communities. We carried out this project in a school setting, these students sat for the exams of the classses of their choice that they wanted to join after going through the pilot class and out of the the 30 children only one student was not in postion to join the class of his choice. At the end of the course they were given report cards that would help them join other schools incase they did not want to stay at Katwe primary.

Through the support from the parents after forming the saving group, their children are still in school.