When USAID’s Middle East Bureau asked RTI’s international education team to assess what has been happening to formal education in Syria during the ongoing tragic conflict, I was happy to raise my hand and take on this task. My mother was born and raised in Aleppo and my maternal family roots are deeply tied to the past 150 years of its history. Watching the annihilation of parts of Aleppo and learning of cousins becoming refugees in Lebanon, Sweden and elsewhere has been very saddening, as have the images that appear daily on our televisions.
These tragic events have struck an even deeper chord with me given my own personal experiences growing up in Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. My education was interrupted several times when I was in primary school. I had to spend a year at home not learning and then spent the next year enrolled in school in Jordan where the curriculum and language of instruction were very different. In the present day, I often wonder how Syrian children cope with not receiving any education for two, three, sometimes even four years straight. This is hardly a recipe for success for these children or for the future of their country.
Prior to the current conflict, Syria saw its share of education successes. While the Syrian education system struggled with quality and relevance, it was nonetheless able to provide education services for Grades 1-9 for almost all Syrian children. In fact, much like its Levantine neighbors, Syria had achieved the two education-related Millennium Development Goals – Education for All for basic education as well as gender parity in enrollment.
But the conflict that began in 2011 has had an extraordinarily destructive impact – on lives, infrastructure, health and education. 5.82 million children and youth from pre-school to the secondary level are in need of education assistance. More than 1.7 million children inside Syria are out of school. One in three schools cannot be used because they are destroyed, damaged, sheltering displaced families or being used for military purposes. The education system has lost 150,000 or over one third of its personnel, including teachers. In 2016, at least 87 attacks on schools and education personnel were recorded and more than 255 children were killed while at or near school.[i]
Given the dearth of information on the education sector beyond these high-level statistics, USAID’s Middle East Bureau saw the need to uncover in greater detail what was happening to the different elements that together make an education system: teachers, textbooks and other learning materials, schools, supervision systems, examinations, and more. USAID asked RTI to develop an annotated bibliography of the available literature on education in Syria since the war began in 2011, conduct an analysis of key education system issues based on the findings from the literature review, and interview staff working with organizations on the front lines of education service delivery to fact check some of our findings. The team conducting the review was also charged with looking more closely at the three highly contested governorates of Dara’a, Idlib and Aleppo.
We conducted a thorough document review[ii] and found that access to education is often constrained by issues of security and an insufficient number of schools. Children are also not going to school due to socioeconomic imperatives, such as needing to work to feed their families or their parents being unable to pay schooling fees. The country has seen a rise in child marriage because, in the eyes of some girls’ parents, marriage provides a more secure present and future for their daughters and transfers responsibility for their well-being to someone else.
What children are learning and how much they are learning is also unknown given the lack of assessments and inconsistent 12th grade examination outcomes. Apart from being outdated and dependent on rote memorization, textbooks and curricula in Syria lack psycho-social support content, making the system ill-equipped to respond to real needs arising from the conflict. Learning in opposition-controlled area schools is not even officially recognized as an education by the government of Syria, with officials rejecting certificates.
Apart from worrying about safety and security, teachers are most concerned about being paid. Depending on where they live, where they teach and under whose authority their school falls, they may report to one type of authority, be paid by another and teach a curriculum from a third source. This lack of job security leaves them woefully unprepared for addressing the psychosocial needs of their students. Many teachers prefer to leave their posts and find any type of employment that provides better and more reliable income.
Furthermore, parts of Syria that have been relatively calm are being flooded by internally displaced persons that are burdening systems and infrastructure, including schools. Around 33 percent of school-aged children live in areas under the control of the Government of Syria, while 26 percent are in contested and mixed control areas and the remaining 41 percent live in areas under the control of other actors. In areas that are not under the control of the Syrian regime or the Syrian opposition, education services are especially poor. These include areas controlled by ISIS or other extremist religious groups, where curriculum subjects such as history, philosophy and art have been eliminated with more emphasis being placed on Islamic education.
How has the international community responded to all this? At first the response was ad hoc. But with the UN Security Council’s vote to allow cross-border operations from Jordan and Syria, a more loosely coordinated response has emerged under the Whole of Syria response framework. Unfortunately, the education sector continues to be underfunded by the donor community, with international relief bodies and NGOs continuing to advocate for increased attention to the sector. In addition, most education programs supported by the donor community have been delivered within the context of relief and child welfare, and have mainly focused on providing access to education rather than ensuring relevant learning that will help this war generation of Syrian children develop the skills they need to not only survive but also flourish.
After reading the heaps of documents and media reports and interviewing dedicated professionals working on the front lines of education delivery in and around Syria, I came away with larger questions that I believe development practitioners should be contemplating and discussing. In my mind, some of the most important questions for our community include:
- What are the top priorities in Syrian education? What should education providers focus on given the fluid, and continuously moving internal conflict lines?
- Are there innovative strategies for providing education that don’t require children to be in a classroom?
- What are Syrian children and youth learning? And how do we measure learning outcomes given the difficulty of conducting surveys?
There is little if anything those of us in the education development sector can do to stop the tragic conflict in Syria. But, hopefully, one day soon, peace will return to the country, and the region. When it does, we need to be ready to do our part to help restore the promise of a good education—and a brighter future—for the children of Syria.
To learn more about Nina and her work, visit ECCN’s Web page on Education in Syria, which includes a webcast recording featuring her and other discussants.
[i] Preparing for the Future of Children and Youth in Syria and the Region through Education: London One Year On. Brussels Conference Education Report, April 2017
[ii] We reviewed more than 150 documents in total, 10-15 of which were of great value since they included recent and reliable data. Two sets of reports from 2016 were of the greatest value since they were a result of surveys conducted in a small sample of schools inside Syria: the three-part Syria Education Sector Analysis, the Effects of the Crisis in Syria produced by UNICEF’s MENA Regional Office in Damascus, and the Schools in Syria: Thematic Report produced by the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU) out of Gaziantep.