Four years into the Syrian conflict and almost three million Syrian children are out of school. Economic pressures on families who have fled to neighbouring countries mean children face years without formal education, many forced into child labour or early marriage.
With only 2% of international humanitarian aid allocated to education, some companies are going beyond traditional philanthropy to help Syria’s child refugees get back to school.
The global educational publisher Pearson is planning to spend £1m to help find solutions for Syria’s refugee education crisis and another £500,000 to support two education centres in Amman, Jordan, designed and run by Save the Children.
There may be scepticism about the motives of private companies providing schooling for children in conflict zones. But for Pearson, which has made no commitment to expand beyond this pilot project in Syria, this is an extension of its existing business providing education goods and services in the region.
“It’s a new model for us,” says Amanda Gardiner, vice president of sustainability and social innovation at Pearson, the world’s largest learning company. “The need is enormous. Access to schooling is not the only issue – the quality of education has declined as a result of overcrowded classrooms, curriculum complexities, cultural barriers and other challenges. Absorbing the influx of refugees has been an immense struggle for Syria’s neighbours,” she says.
Rob Williams, chief executive of War Child UK sees a financial as well as altruistic aspect to Pearson’s pilot programme. “If I were a global education provider like Pearson, I might be looking at the commercial potential of education programmes that could actually be sold in emergency situations. This would not be a bad thing,” he says.
“In Jordan, there are not enough places for refugee children to enrol in schools. Children in Jordan’s Zaa’tari refugee camp have told us about classes with 120 students and one teacher. Some families might be motivated enough to find $1 to send their children to school if there was a private one. The model of host countries depending on UN financing can only go so far.” He adds: “There is evidence that private solutions can be quicker and the cost per pupil lower than with government solutions.”
Education without borders
The long-term impact of Syrian children never returning to school has been estimated at 5.4% of Syria’s GDP, or £1.5bn, according to Save the Children, which is calling on donors to fund the $224m the UN says is required for education for Syria. In a conflict zone, however, even getting the money can be problematic. According to Patrick Gaston, president of the Western Union Foundation: “30% of people who have used Western Union say they have done so to transfer money to support education. We know that education is a very critical need.”
Western Union’s NGO global pay programme enables money to be transferred to Oxfam and Save the Children field staff in Syria and surrounding areas in a “safe, reliable, transparent, auditable way,” according to Talya Bosch, vice president of Western Union’s social ventures.
“Too often we hear stories of NGO workers trying to get money across borders in suitcases of cash,” she adds. “Our emphasis is not so much in conflict areas as it is in education, specifically on the type of education that can lead to productive employment”. The company raised $60,000 for Unicef’s education efforts in Syria by matching consumer contributions donated through its money transfer locations.
Challenges of working in refugee camps
There are barriers to creating a blueprint for educating children in emergencies, according to Gardiner: “For example, do we pilot in refugee camps or host communities? Develop interventions for preschool, primary or secondary-aged children? Target kids, parents, teachers? Design for formal or non-formal education? Learning does not happen in a vacuum, but is affected by social, political, cultural and other dynamics.” And companies cannot ignore the government. Joel Bubbers, the British Council’s country director for Syria, says: “In Lebanon, for example, groups that have been successful have recognised the importance of working with and not sidestepping the Lebanese Ministry of Education.”
“There have been examples of organisations parachuting in and putting superficial responses that are deemed to support only Syrian refugees. In Lebanon [which has taken in the most refugees] the Syrian refugees are often in the most impoverished and underserved parts of the country, with already stretched public services.”
The key is to partner with experienced NGOs and not bypass local authorities, he adds. “When you work exclusively with refugee populations without being aware of local sensitivities, that’s when things get unstuck.”