Imagine you are the parent of a six-year-old Syrian child who started school in 2011, just as the uprising against the Assad regime began.
It’s very likely that your child’s schooling first became disrupted, and then just stopped. Five years later, you may have abandoned your home, or are living in a refugee camp on Syria’s borders, or in emergency accommodation in one of the surrounding countries.
Yet your child is nearly halfway through what should have been their school career. At 11, they should be ready for Middle School, starting the route towards public examinations. Instead, your child like many hundreds of thousands of other children have had hardly any formal schooling at all.
This is Syria’s youth today, deprived of an education that will be vital for the rebuilding of their homeland when the conflict eventually ends.
We have a choice. This could be a lost generation – unqualified for jobs or higher education, their formative years spent living as refugees with huge gaps in their education rather than learning skills they need to thrive in the 21st century.
Or they could be helped, by generous international funding to provide their education, to support the overburdened schools in Syria’s neighbouring countries, and to address serious social problems beyond the school gates which are already undermining the futures of millions.
The numbers are alarming. Save the Children estimates that 2.8 million Syrian children are not enrolled in education, with two-thirds of refugees in Turkey estimated to be missing school. Over 4,000 schools are closed and 52,000 Syrian teachers have fled the country. Lebanon’s population has increased by a quarter. Schools there, and in Jordan and Turkey, are so overwhelmed by refugee children that they run double shifts – one class in the morning and another in the afternoon.
By acting now can we stop a slide into disillusion, disengagement or worse.
This expanding educational chasm is on the agenda at the Syria Donors’ Conference in London this week, called by the UK, Kuwait, Germany, Norway and the UN.
Syria is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two but there’s a $5bn funding gap for this year, which needs filling.
Kuwait previously hosted three funding conferences and now the British Government, which has allocated over $1.5bn to the Syrian crisis since 2012, is taking on that responsibility.
Much of the money raised will provide food, shelter and other immediate aid. But, as we reach the fifth anniversary of the conflict, there is still no sign that it will end soon, and the situation for Syrians and communities in neighbouring countries has the potential to cause further instability, despite significant aid contributions.
Now the situation has changed. Supporting Syrian youth is a long-term project. On a world average, refugees spend 17 years of their lives in displacement. The current levels of spending on education are nothing like enough. Until now just one percent of humanitarian funding has been spent on education. This week’s conference will seek to secure international funding to ensure that all Syrian and host community children have access to education by 2016/2017.
Whilst access to schooling is imperative, we must also look beyond the school gates when it comes to education funding.
Evidence from our work and that of international NGOs points to the importance of education in building individual and community resilience. A resilience that is needed at such difficult times, helping people to cope with their existing situation and eventually progress. But barriers to education exist.
Lack of language skills beyond Arabic is a significant barrier to Syrian students. In Lebanon, the British Council is partnering with the EU to teach English and French, so students can study in Lebanon’s multi-lingual schools. In Turkey similar large scale Turkish language programmes are needed to enable access to education.
We urge more teaching of foreign languages, to enable displaced students to access education in these countries and earn internationally-recognised qualifications and skills that they need.
Education systems in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have undertaken a huge task in absorbing the influx of refugees. These countries urgently need support to further strengthen their educations systems, allowing them to continue this vital work.
The two-shift teaching system, in Lebanon costs just $10 per pupil per week. Even so, it’s estimated that $500m is needed to properly fund it across the region. The pressures on the systems are there - schools are crowded and teachers are overworked.
An important factor keeping children out of school is quite simply a lack of money. Many refugee families have lost everything – home, income, savings. Many are relying on UN support or the generosity of local people and communities.
In these circumstances school can be seen as a luxury. Boys are sent out to work. Girls are getting married young – a 2014 UNICEF report said that one in five Syrian brides is under 16. In both cases they tend not to return to school, limiting future prospects.
In London this week the international community is gathering to invest in Syria’s young people. Investing in schools that urgently need the funding, and seeking to tackle the poverty and exclusion which prevent children even reaching the school gates.
Adrian Chadwick is the Middle East North Africa director at the British Council. He has also previously served as Croatia & West Balkans director at the British Council.