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Uneducated future

Interview: Tamsin Walker
May 5, 2014

Education is one of the many facets of regular life to be hit by the war in Syria. Development expert Steven A. Zyck talked to DW about the lasting impact of years without substantial schooling.

Bombed out classroom
Bombed out classrooms and mass displacement have made education a luxury for Syrian childrenImage: Reuters

Can you describe the education situation facing Syrian children at the moment?

Essentially we see more than a million children losing out on education as a result of the conflict and a comparable number displaced in neighboring countries who are also forgoing education. School enrolment rates are variable and low across the region, and the number of refugee children actually going to school is likely to be about a quarter - give or take.

For those children who do go to school, we also see curriculum issues. There is a lot of anxiety about the influence of the Syrian curriculum on those of the host countries, so in a number of places the students have been required to use the local curriculum. So when students are able to return to Syria, and hopefully rejoin the Syrian education system, they will have a diverse array of educational backgrounds and won’t be able to integrate nearly as smoothly.

This refers to formal education systems, but it is important to note that there is also a lot going on informally - by communities and family members - to provide some kind of access. There is also a large informal system which is supported by international NGOs to help get students who are out of school access to educational opportunities.

There has been a lot of talk about a lack of education leading to a "lost generation" of Syrian children, what does that mean in real terms?

I think the term "lost generation" has been a powerful funding pitch. I know a lot of people in the region are very uncomfortable with this term, because they although they are missing out on opportunities, they are not lost. I think it is driven by awareness-raising, to try and get governments, including in security conscious Western capitals, to be more concerned about the plight of Syrian children. That said, they definitely are losing educational opportunities and that will have long term implications for Syria.

What would you consider to be the major implications?

Steven A Zyck
Steven A. ZyckImage: ODI

So much will depend on when and how the conflict ends, and any remaining education infrastructure. But with those caveats aside, it is going to be a complicated economic recovery and development. The broader issue is when you have a less literate population economic repercussions are likely to last for generations because children who miss out on three, four, five years of education are going to be less equipped to educate their own children.

There are exceptions like Bosnia, Tajikistan, Rwanda where you have a clear end to the conflict and massive amounts of international assistance, you see education indicators recover pretty quickly. In Syria it is highly unlikely the conflict is going to have a clear end, it’s highly likely it is going to end any time soon, so it is an extremely bad scenario, and we are not going to see education bounce back after the conflict.

You talked about the economic repercussions, but what about those on society more generally?

One of the other issues is the impact on governments and basic services. In Iraq we have started to see that through conflict you see the quality of people available for the public sector really decline. The remaining bright lights flock to the better paid jobs in the private sector, and the public sector is left with those who are not the best. There will be a delayed impact that strikes when you hit that cohort of people currently aged between eight and fifteen, who are gong to be entering the job market five years from now and rolling out over the next decade or more.

What could the international community be doing to ensure that refugee children are getting an education?

It may seem obvious, but we always need to start with the funding, and right now we are expecting the national education systems in the host countries to shoulder an incredible burden in terms of tens of hundreds of thousands of new students. So we need to get the funding right and get the resources to the governments.

We also need to start thinking about these informal approaches to education because we don’t really have a scalable strategy in place. We have a wide variety of NGOs and UN bodies provided programing, but there is still the hope that some day they will start providing education to the vast majority of Syrian refugee children. That would require massive investments in infrastructure, teacher training and core government financing, so the informal education services are the future.

Do you have any particular ideas in mind?

We feel that e-learning is one of the only solutions that can reach a large number of students in all these countries in short order. It could involve developing a common curriculum and working with private e-learning companies to develop engaging interactive modules that can be preloaded onto tablets and computers to be used both by individual students, but also groups of students. You just need a room where students can come together and have access to learning. And if we could get individuals to facilitate the classes, I think we could rapidly scale up access to education.

Another thing we should be doing more of is working with displaced Syrian teachers and professionals, to get them involved in educating refugee children. There has been some hesitation to do so because of concerns that the curriculum is seen as out of date or heavily politicized. I think there is much more we could do to mobilize the tens of thousands of displaced Syrian teachers who would be grateful for the job and who have a lot to offer.

Steven A. Zyck is a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group of the Overseas Development Institute. He has extensive experience as a researcher and practitioner with a focus on aid delivery in conflict-affected and insecure environments.