Tove Wang: “Education in fragile states needs to be a priority for the rest of the world”

Access and Inclusion January 16, 2014

2012 WISE Awards Winner Tove Romsaas Wang from Save the Children pays tribute to World Refugee Day with a guest opinion piece stressing the need for education in conflict-affected fragile states.

Not once in more than 30 years of working for Save the Children have I met a child who does not have a dream for the future. Children want to be doctors, poets, engineers, policemen, teachers, even presidents. To be empowered through education is what they ask for and it is their right.

This is particularly true for children living in conflict-affected fragile states (CAFS) or who have been forced to flee their homes because of humanitarian crises. These children suffer a double injustice.  Not only are they innocent victims of the poverty, displacement and gender, religious, disability and ethnic discrimination that comes with war, but many of them are also denied their right to education. They witness their dreams slipping through their fingers.

More than 40% of out-of-school children in the world (28 million out of 67 million, 53% of whom are girls, according to UNESCO in 2011) live in CAFS, where the barriers to education are exacerbated because of low levels of literacy, a lack of infrastructure, difficulties in recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, gender disparities and inadequate financing. Even for those children who are able to attend school, the quality of the education they receive is often poor, leading to low levels of achievement and high drop-out rates. This results in uncertain futures for the children themselves as well as their communities and the country as a whole.

Securing access to quality education for children living in CAFS continues to be a priority for Save the Children. As conflict and fragility remain prevalent and the number of out-of-school children stagnates, education in CAFS needs to be a priority for the rest of the world too.

Education was an integral part of Save the Children’s response to the refugee situation in the East and Horn of Africa last year. There are many thousands of children amongst the Somali refugees who have fled to neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya over the last 18 months following high levels of political unrest and severe drought in Somalia.  As part of our humanitarian response, Save the Children set up temporary learning centres and established early childhood and primary education programmes reaching more than 6,000 refugee children in camps at Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. We are also addressing the needs of 11,500 children and youths in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya by implementing early childhood care and development interventions for nought to six-year-olds and accelerated learning programmes for older children who have missed out on sections of their basic education and technical vocational training for youth.

Creating spaces for children to learn is a key part of our work. The legacy of war and on-going conflict has led to a lack of infrastructure in many CAFS.  Children are often forced to attend lessons that take place under trees with no sanitary facilities. Simply talking to children about their needs has taught us that these are some of the key reasons why children do not attend school, especially girls. Together with our partner organisations in South Sudan, Save the Children has been able to build permanent classrooms equipped with latrines and washing facilities. The 57% attendance level that these schools achieve is almost double that of “open-air” schools.

Even where schools and classrooms do exist, many children are still unable to attend because the road to school or the building itself is unsafe. The “Schools as Zones of Peace” (SZOP) initiative in Nepal encourages communities to work with different stakeholders and at different levels to protect their schools from attack, which has resulted in more children attending school and schools being open more days in the year.  In May 2012 we co-hosted a seminar with the governments of Nepal and Norway and UNICEF in Kathmandu, attended by representatives from India, Ivory Coast, Liberia and South Sudan, to share knowledge and experience of promoting schools as zones of peace and to increase high-level political commitment to protecting the right to education in conflict zones. As a result, these countries have committed to contextualising and replicating SZOP.

As a delivery partner for the Nigerian and UK governments’ Education Sector Support Programme in Nigeria, which is home to more than 10.5 million out-of-school children, we have been instrumental in establishing more than 1,000 school-based management committees (SBMCs). The members of these SMBCs have felt that the committees have succeeded in improving school security, increasing teacher presence and teacher-student contact time as well as increasing enrolment levels, reducing absenteeism and enabling students who had previously dropped out to return to school.

Not only do many children living in CAFS miss out on education, but those that do have access are not necessarily guaranteed to learn. Obtaining reading materials and teaching resources, particularly in the local language, is often difficult. Similarly, education systems that have been devastated by war face a further challenge in recruiting and retaining teachers. Often, the level of teachers’ education is not significantly higher than that of their pupils, for example in South Sudan. This has a huge effect on the quality of education in CAFS and has resulted in children not necessarily learning even if they are able to attend school. 

Some of our most effective interventions for tackling poor quality education in CAFS have been teacher training and school-based supervision or peer mentoring programmes.  Save the Children has implemented teacher-training programmes in several CAFS and other emergency contexts to help educate teachers on more participatory and child-centred teaching methods. The results we have observed are highly positive and include detailed lesson plans, improved teacher listening skills, increased group or pair work in schools and children being able to share their experiences and ask questions of their peers and teachers, all of which has contributed to higher levels of achievement.  

Ensuring children’s right to education in CAFS and emergency contexts is not without financial challenges.  Aside from the US$16 billion required annually to meet the external financing gap for low-income countries and the fact that donors are not on track to meet their current commitments, a mere 2% of humanitarian aid is allocated to education, often for short-term programmes only, and 62% of emergency aid requests for education are denied.

Quite apart from the fact that education is a basic human right and, as such, we have a duty to ensure children’s access, education also ensures that children lead dignified lives and is an essential vehicle for achieving development goals, promoting democracy and enabling participation in society. We cannot afford to lose another generation of children who have been denied their right to education.

Providing children who live in CAFS or who are caught up in humanitarian crises with access to a good quality education can reinstate a degree of stability in their lives and protect them from the risks and dangers associated with emergency situations. They can continue to realise their dreams of being doctors, poets and engineers, or of one day being president.