Losing Syria’s Youngest Generation: The Education Crisis Facing Syrian Refugees in Jordan

from Middle East Research and Information Project
Published on 02 Mar 2016 View Original

by Reva Dhingra | published March 2, 2016

Hasan bounces in his chair, pencil tapping against the table as he bends over the first page of a math exam. He hesitates, before stretching his hand frantically into the air as he waits for help from the program facilitator busy with one of the handful of other boys scattered across the classroom. Hasan is a student at one of over 90 Non-Formal Education Centers opened in Jordan by the education NGO Questscope in partnership with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, funded by a grant from UNICEF. The program, aimed at providing tenth-grade equivalency certificates for refugee and Jordanian children who have spent years without formal schooling, has witnessed a dramatic expansion since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

Less than a two-hour drive from Hasan’s classroom, fighting between government forces and rebel groups rages in the southern Syrian province of Dar‘a, the area from which many of Jordan’s estimated 635,000 registered Syrian refugees have fled. For the approximately 240,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan who are school-age children, the burden of protracted displacement has cast a shadow over the future. While the Jordanian Ministry of Planning estimates that about 143,000 of these children are enrolled in formal schools, about 40 percent of Syrian children remain out of school. As the education situation has worsened for Syrian children, Jordan’s own efforts at education reform have been derailed. The quality of education has rapidly declined in the country’s public schools due to overcrowded classrooms and overstretched resources. An estimated 30,000 Jordanian children are also out of school. [1]

In 2013, as the international community increasingly came to terms with the prolonged nature of the Syrian conflict, the UN and numerous NGOs piloted the “No Lost Generation” initiative, aimed at preventing further educational loss for Syrian children across the region. Yet both education-specific and region-wide appeals remain consistently underfunded—international appeals received less than half of required funding in 2015. Political constraints and bureaucratic barriers have additionally hampered access to formal schools. Instead, international actors have emphasized the development of “innovative solutions” to address the burgeoning educational crisis facing both Syrian and host community children. [2]

These innovative solutions have in part taken the shape of “alternative education” programs that are intended to be temporary learning spaces for children unable to enroll in school. While education actors involved in the Syrian crisis response continue to emphasize the ultimate goal of bringing out-of-school children back to the formal school system, alternative education, a term encompassing both short “informal” education programs and two-year “non-formal” education programs, has become increasingly prevalent as a way to provide a temporary safe haven for children during the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Yet as the Syrian conflict boils into a sixth year, the rapid proliferation of alternative educational programs may simply reflect an ongoing inability to develop long-term, sustainable solutions to the Syrian crisis. In Jordan, challenges in ensuring quality and standardization among the vast range of alternative education programming, along with a lack of coordination on a cohesive education strategy among competing NGOs, render these programs little more than stopgaps and leave thousands of children in educational limbo. Faced with funding constraints and political barriers that have slowed access to formal schooling, NGOs have relied on alternative education programs as the “best-worst solution”—as one NGO employee somewhat despondently described them—for supporting children facing the fallout of violence and displacement. In the ongoing emergency, alternative education programs are a necessary step as the formal education system in Jordan struggles to expand to incorporate refugees. Improving program quality and strengthening coordination between organizations providing alternative education is therefore vital to ensuring education opportunities for Syrian refugees. But as political resolutions to the conflict falter and the crisis extends into long-term displacement, is dependence on “best-worst solutions” ultimately failing Syria’s children?

Challenges in Providing Education

Throughout Jordan’s long history as a host of refugees, the government, civil society and international organizations have differed over how best to provide education for people in exile. In the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, an entire parallel school system was developed under the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees displaced across the region—a system that endures to this day. During the refugee crisis following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Iraqi students were excluded from Jordanian schools until 2007, with NGOs initially subsidizing some children’s attendance of private schools. Under pressure from international organizations, the Ministry of Education opened the doors of Jordan’s public schools free of charge to Iraqi refugees with significant international funding—only for few Iraqi refugees to actually enroll. [3]

A delayed international response due to uncertainty about the duration and magnitude of the Syrian conflict initially hindered refugee access to education in Jordan. Though the country had responded to estimates of 500,000 Iraqis fleeing deepening sectarian violence less than five years before, the unprecedented number of Syrian refugees arriving in the country in 2012—with as many as 3,000 crossing Jordan’s northern border on a daily basis in late 2012 and 2013—quickly overwhelmed Jordan’s infrastructure and resources. [4] Over 60 percent of Syrian refugees were out of school by the end of 2013.

While the provision of education for Syrian refugees has been steadily improving, nearly 40 percent of Syrian children ages 6-18 in Jordan remained out of school as of December 2015. As the Jordanian school system struggles to expand to include Syrian children—with 98 schools adopting a double-shift system in which Syrian and Jordanian students attend separate morning and afternoon shifts—the quality of education has also declined. Classes may contain more than 100 students in the most vulnerable areas in the north and in the refugee camps.

As one of the highest recipients of US education aid per capita, Jordan’s education system has benefited from significant international infrastructural and capacity-building support over the past two decades. [5] The Jordanian government-directed Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy, a primary and secondary school reform initiative launched in 2009 and supported in part by USAID, was to be completed by the end of 2016. Yet as already jammed public schools struggle under the weight of an additional 143,000 students, government authorities argue that the reform process has been effectively halted. They point to abysmal classroom conditions and low test scores among Jordanian and Syrian students alike as a direct result of the Syrian crisis. The Ministry of Education has stated that it cannot build the 450 schools it says are required to accommodate the Syrian refugees without additional international support. [6] “Jordan provides its schools, its textbooks, its teachers based on its ability. But it cannot provide more than its own ability…. Our government cannot build new schools on its own for the Syrians; it lacks the capabilities,” notes ‘Abdallah al-Nasr, head of the Non-Formal Education Division in the Ministry. [7]

As in the case of the Iraqi refugee crisis, however, where some observers argued that the government was shunting the aid meant for Iraqi refugees toward development needs while failing to target the most vulnerable, school expansion alone may fail to address the specific needs of Syrian refugees. [8] Syrian children face barriers to education that go beyond a lack of supply. For many Syrian refugees, the financial burden of enrolling their children in school may simply be too much to bear. The cost of school supplies and transportation, along with falling amounts of international aid, have placed school out of reach for the children of the poorest families. Parents are often unable to work due to restrictive Jordanian policies. Instead, child labor and early marriage have increased, with children in some cases serving as the sole source of income for the family.

A 2015 assessment by the Jordan Education Sector Working Group also cited prohibitive documentation requirements for enrollment and safety concerns as factors precluding school attendance. Syrian students interviewed in the assessment reported teacher-student violence and discrimination, as well as fighting between Jordanian and Syrian students, reflecting the tense relations between Syrians and many Jordanians who view the refugees as an unwanted burden. [9]

In addition, an estimated 60,000 Syrian refugee children are completely ineligible for formal schooling due to a Jordanian law preventing children who have been out of school for three or more years from re-enrolling. [10] As the Syrian crisis extends into a sixth year, the numbers of children ineligible for formal schooling may only increase—the longer children stay out of school, the less likely it is that they will return.

Alternative Education in Jordan

The combination of government restrictions, limited funding, and an increasing number of primary and secondary school-aged children with little access to formal education has compelled NGOs in Jordan to adopt alternative solutions. Building on loosely established UN and international guidelines on the provision of education in emergencies as well as existing programs designed for Jordanian out-of-school children, NGOs have relied on two primary approaches to providing alternative education for Syrian refugees: informal education and non-formal education.

The expansion of informal education programs in Jordan was a direct answer to demonstrated need among refugees. [11] Syrian children working as laborers on farms in the Jordan Valley may live in informal tented settlements with their families—temporary housing often located too far from formal schools for children to attend. Informal education programs, which are typically six months in duration and can take place anywhere from a tent to a community building, may therefore be the only option for children either unable to enroll in the school system or working. The programs generally provide basic literacy and numeracy instruction and often include “life skills” activities, including recreational and psychological support, and may also incorporate vocational activities.

Because informal education programs lack Jordanian Ministry of Education certification—though all programs require government approval—NGOs may largely circumvent layers of red tape to provide rapid services at a relatively low cost, making the programs an early favorite in the Syrian emergency education response. In 2015, UNICEF launched the Makani (My Space) initiative, an attempt at standardizing informal education requirements among the growing number of programs across the country and supporting further expansion of informal education centers.

For the over two dozen NGOs carrying out informal education in Jordan, whether as UNICEF partners or through alternate funding, the benefits of providing even a temporary learning space for children extend beyond education. “For children who are out of school, and are not going to have an opportunity any time soon to go back to school, informal education when done well, when done in a quality way, can provide children with both the educational and the non-educational resources to overcome the limitations that are endangering them. That child is much less likely to be exploited or put in danger if he or she is going to school every day,” noted Garrett Rubin, a program manager with the Middle East Children’s Institute. [12]

Informal education programs are also intended to serve as a referral pathway to formal school for children unable to enroll, whether due to overcrowding, restrictions on documentation or prolonged absence resulting in falling behind in grade level. Children who enroll in an informal education program should then be in a better position for placement in school as space becomes available.

But for the approximately 60,000 Syrian children who have been out of school for three years or more, the benefits of attending an informal education program may be limited. Even after completing such a program, these children would be unable to enroll in the formal schooling system. Instead, non-formal education, which encompasses both home schooling and a two-year program developed for Jordanian dropouts in 2003 by the Ministry of Education and the NGO Questscope, has increasingly been highlighted as a potential solution for out-of-school Syrian refugees.

The non-formal program was initially intended as an opportunity for dropouts to enroll in Jordan’s vocational training schools, which require a tenth-grade level certificate. Students receive the certificate upon graduation from the program, which also qualifies them for an exam to re-enroll in formal school at the tenth grade. Curt Rhodes, the international director and founder of Questscope, remarked that non-formal education serves as a “second chance” for students who have struggled within the formal schooling system. Rhodes highlighted the blend of pro-social, discussion-based teaching strategies and personalized instruction—classes may contain no more than 20 students—as key elements for supporting the most vulnerable youth. [13]

Classes take place inside empty rooms in government schools, often after regular classes have concluded. The flexible scheduling allows students who may be working to attend lessons. Hamza, a 14-year old Jordanian student at a non-formal education center in Amman, works in a carpentry shop part-time, and hopes that the program will enable him to qualify for specialized carpentry training after graduation. [14]

In 2008, the program was expanded to serve Iraqi refugees unable to enroll in formal schools due to Jordanian restrictions. Since the Syrian refugee crisis began in 2011, the program has grown from just a handful of locations to 90 in 2015, with support from UNICEF and other partners, and continues to expand as international donors search for more durable educational opportunities for both Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians.

Both non-formal education and informal education programs have grown dramatically since 2011—UNICEF alone supports more than 250 alternative education centers across the country. By the end of 2015, an estimated 27,100 Syrian school-age refugees had benefited from some form of alternative education support. Yet the rapid expansion of alternative education programming has also given rise to challenges in coordination and standardization, as well as competition among different NGOs in Jordan. In both the short and the long term, these challenges may hinder the expansion of quality education for Syrian refugees and endanger hopes of preventing a lost generation.

A Sustainable Solution?

Two years after the launch of the “No Lost Generation” initiative, the progress being made in Jordan to expand access to education for Syrian refugees seems to far outstrip that in other host countries in the region. More than 70 percent of the Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are out of school. In Jordan, according to the Ministry of Planning, that proportion was less than 40 percent at the end of 2015—down from over 60 percent in 2013.

Alternative education continues to be emphasized as a vital component of the ongoing education response. In the latest international funding appeal for the Syria response in Jordan, nearly $40 million were requested for 2016 in order to enroll 80,000 children in informal education and 6,000 in non-formal education programs. An additional $64.6 million have been requested for 2017 and 2018, suggesting that neither international organizations nor government authorities envision scaling down the programs in the near future.

Yet is alternative education a sustainable—or even effective—solution to the education crisis facing Syrian refugees? While alternative education programs are intended to be gateways to enrollment in formal schools, the reality on the ground is less clear. A decentralized education response plagued by coordination, political challenges and even competition between international organizations threatens that will actually develop is a virtual parallel system of alternative education. Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians alike are left in an environment of confusion, with tens of thousands of children in limbo as the prospect of returning to school becomes increasingly distant. Yet as funding barriers and government constraints delay school enrollment and out-of-school refugees remain in need of both support for transition back to the formal system and a safe haven from the trauma of displacement, alternative education will remain a necessary component of any education strategy.

A Numbers Game

The sheer number of NGOs implementing different informal education programs—more than two dozen—has made it difficult to coordinate on standards and curricula. While the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies developed the Minimum Standards for Education in Emergencies, Chronic Crises and Early Reconstruction in 2004, the guidelines serve only as a rough framework for developing informal education programs. As a result, activities deemed as “informal education” can vary widely in rigor, with some consisting solely of recreational activities with some basic literacy and numeracy training. While UNICEF has made headway in efforts to standardize informal education through the Makani program, which outlines a three-level system of instruction, some argue that the expansion of informal education, standardized or not, poses the biggest challenge.

By expanding short-duration programming aimed at reaching the highest number of children for relatively little money, critics of informal education argue, the programs are ultimately sacrificing quality for quantity. The funding cycles of government and international donors such as the United States are typically year-long, and a sense of urgency coupled with an environment of competition may have contributed to the ongoing spread of informal education programs.

As Ahmad Rababah, the senior educational technical adviser with Relief International, highlighted, “Donors are interested in numbers of beneficiaries. When you are implementing an informal education program, you can have thousands of beneficiaries.” He added that a focus on numbers might lead to accidental recounting of children re-enrolled in the same program. “Duplication in counting the number of beneficiaries occurs because children would enroll in the first session of a program, then enroll again in the second session.” [15] In seeking to cover the greatest number of children, informal education programs may not be reaching the most vulnerable children—a 2015 assessment conducted by UNICEF found that the majority of children surveyed attending informal education programs were also enrolled in formal schooling. [16]

In addition, a lack of certification precludes graduates from using the programs to place into the appropriate grade levels in formal schools. In an interview, Abeer Ziadeh, program officer with Save the Children Jordan, acknowledged the drawbacks of informal education programs. “The lack of certification is a big challenge, because if children are learning just basic numeracy and literacy, they’re not getting certified. So getting into university or continuing education will be a challenge for those children.”

NGOs point to government unwillingness to allow certification for informal education programs as the primary barrier to increased standardization. Yet ‘Abdallah al-Nasr of the Ministry of Education argued that certifying a six-month program would undermine the existing systems in place to provide education for out-of-school children, whether refugee or Jordanian. He remarked that “any NGO interested in non-formal education is welcome to partner with us,” adding however that “most NGOs lack the experience” to implement the government-favored programs.

Too Little, Too Late?

Even in the case of non-formal education, however, a web of government barriers and a scarcity of NGOs able to operate programs (only one organization, Questscope, had active centers as of the end of 2015), have limited the viability of further expansion of the program—and the existing programs may not even be reaching the most vulnerable Syrian refugees or Jordanians. Because non-formal education classes must take place in a government school building, many of which are overcrowded, there is little space. For children living in rural areas, the cost of transportation to program sites remains prohibitive.

Non-formal education programs also limit the number of students to 20 per class, and employ Ministry of Education-certified teachers as “facilitators” to lead the classes. While the quality of education is certainly higher, with students receiving more individual attention, the costs of running a non-formal education center far outstrip those of an informal program. With funding too scarce to cover essential humanitarian needs such as food and shelter, the sustainability of non-formal education has been called into question by both donors and other NGOs. Though the program was established jointly by the Ministry of Education and Questscope, without direct donor support the government has in the past been unable—or unwilling—to fund the program, even for Jordanians.

As Lee Cohen, education officer for USAID, noted in an interview, “It’s hard to partner with donors or with NGOs if there’s no sustainability, and there’s not going to be any sustainability if the government doesn’t devote money to non-formal education. A donor or an NGO will come in and fund it, and then when the money ends the project will end because the government doesn’t devote any money to it.” Though similar standards of sustainability are rarely applied to informal education programs, donors have balked at funding a two-year program directly controlled by the Jordanian government—reflecting another layer of contention that has hindered the Syrian crisis education response in Jordan.

A Means to an End

Perhaps the most significant challenge posed by the rapid expansion of both informal and non-formal education programs is the lack of coordination, even competition, between the numerous organizations that run programs. Though the relevant NGOs interact at biweekly meetings of the UN-led Education Sector Working Group, communication gaps and a challenging government relationship have hindered the realization of a holistic approach to expanding access to education for Syrian refugees.

Inconsistencies between informal and non-formal education program policies have contributed to confusion among students and their families. In one case, a UNICEF-funded informal education center provided transportation for students while a non-formal education center also funded by UNICEF within the same neighborhood did not. For families struggling to afford basic necessities, the difference could mean choosing to enroll their child in an informal program rather than a formal school or a non-formal program further away.

The disconnect stems in part from competition between NGOs struggling for limited funding. As more than two dozen NGOs vie to prove their program’s efficacy to donors, there may be little incentive to coordinate with rivals. Power struggles between the UN-coordinated relief efforts and a government keen on maintaining control over funding for its own infrastructural support and growth have further contributed to mistrust between the various actors. This phenomenon is far from unique to Jordan—research on education responses in Afghanistan and southern Sudan indicate that such challenges in coordination are part and parcel of the initial humanitarian response to refugee crises or displacement. [17]

Establishing pathways between alternative education programs and formal schooling has also proven difficult. Instead of reaching the most vulnerable out-of-school children, programs may duplicate services by operating in densely populated areas or by signing up children already attending another program, as in the case of children attending informal education programs who are already enrolled in schools. Additionally, while attendance at an informal or non-formal program may be an interim solution, without school expansion Syrian children might be unable to enroll in formal school even after completing the program.

It is this last point that raises the most concern among actors involved in the education response to the Syrian refugee crisis. NGOs appear acutely aware of the limitations of their programs. As Ziadeh noted, “Informal education shouldn’t be considered a permanent solution. It’s really only a temporary solution. The formal system needs to time to accommodate and for its capacity to be built and have the space and the environment worked on. This is the best alternative.”

With the shadow of Palestinian refugees looming large (in 2015, UNRWA schools nearly shut down due to a lack of funds), international organizations have remained wary of perpetuating a separate system for Syrian refugees entirely dependent on donors. [18] Focusing on providing a temporary learning space for children may delay their enrollment in formal school, but combined with a concerted effort at school expansion, alternative education may ultimately prove more sustainable for a long-term integration of Syrian refugees into the school system. Instead of a solution, alternative education programs should be viewed as a means (however imperfect) to an end.

In addition, for children suffering the ongoing trauma of war and displacement, the emphasis of both informal and non-formal education programs on supportive learning environments may be critical for their transition back to formal schooling. “All education outside of the formal system is voluntary,” Rhodes noted. “To treat education outside of the formal system as only academic—all of these tens of thousands of kids will never come back for that. It has to be a place to belong to, where you can build relationships, where you can be nurtured, and then where you can get your next piece of paper.”

In Search of Effective Education in Emergencies

The consequences of the education crisis facing Syrian refugees will only be compounded over the next few years. In the short term, children who are out of school rapidly fall behind their peers in educational attainment and are also at risk of being exposed to a range of abuses, including child labor and early marriage. Deprived of school as a safe haven, children might be unable to process the trauma of violence and loss and sink further into isolation, especially when dispersed in cities with weak social support networks. In the long term, a lack of educational attainment among Syrian youth hinders their access to high-skilled employment, crippling their earning potential and threatening to condemn the next generation to poverty. [19] The pervasive deficit in primary and secondary educational opportunities—let alone higher education—may irrevocably handicap the generation that will be tasked with rebuilding Syria.

Informal and non-formal education programs remain vital components of the education response, especially as donor fatigue plagues relief efforts and political solutions to the conflict continue to be stymied. In seeking to support the most vulnerable children who work to support their families, live in hard-to-reach areas or cope with psychological trauma, these programs fill a vital need for a safe space for educational growth and emotional support.

Yet by expanding short-duration programming designed to reach the greatest number of beneficiaries, the education response in Jordan falls short of addressing the root issues keeping children out of school. While 2015 saw a renewed effort by both the Jordanian government and international organizations to reduce the number of out-of-school children, time may be running out for Syrian children, especially in countries with less funding and a less cooperative government. In Lebanon, where refugees make up over 25 percent of the country’s population, tens of thousands of Syrian children remain out of school, some for as many as four years. Alternative education programs may be their only option for the foreseeable future.

Ensuring that Syrian children and vulnerable host community members alike have access to learning environments that are safe, supportive and level-appropriate requires a radical shift in how both the international community and host country governments approach the challenge of educating refugees. Looking beyond yearly funding cycles to a long-term integration of refugees into the schooling systems through new school construction, increased training of teachers in trauma awareness and psychosocial support, and creating direct pathways from alternative education programs into the formal schooling system are increasingly critical to improving education quality for all children in host countries. Adopting a long-term, development-oriented approach to the Syrian crisis, however, requires both additional support through funding from the international community and a shift in government labor policies now handicapping Syrian families.

In Jordan, this process may already be underway. USAID alone committed up to $140 million in 2013 to expanding 120 schools and renovating another 150 schools across the country over five years—and an additional $100 million in 2015. The 2016-2018 Regional Response Plan for Syrian refugees also lays the foundation for a more holistic approach to the challenge of education facing Syria’s youngest generation across the region by focusing on school expansion and teacher training.

Yet as funding levels remain chronically low and systemic solutions such as the right to work remain out of reach for refugees, moving beyond a “crisis” approach to addressing the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees might be impossible. Without significant policy changes, NGOs must instead focus on improving the coordination and quality of alternative education in preventing—or perhaps only postponing—the loss of a generation.


[1] Jordan Times, August 29, 2015.
[2] Jordan Times, December 16, 2014.
[3] Nicholas Seeley, “The Politics of Aid to Iraqi Refugees in Jordan,” Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).
[4] Andrew Harper, “Iraq’s Refugees: Ignored and Unwanted,” International Review of the Red Cross 90 (March 2008).
[5] Interview with Lee Cohen, education officer at USAID, Amman, April 26, 2015.
[6] Muhammad al-‘Uqur, secretary-general of Ministry of Education, keynote address, “Young Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Educational Systems: Challenges and Policies,” Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, Amman, April 16, 2015.
[7] Interview with ‘Abdallah al-Nasr, Amman, February 24, 2015.
[8] Seeley, op cit.
[9] Education Sector Working Group, Access to Education for Syrian Refugee Children and Youth in Jordan Host Communities (Jordan, March 2015).
[10] Ibid.
[11] Interview with Abeer Ziadeh, program officer at Save the Children, Amman, April 27, 2015.
[12] Interview with Garrett Rubin, Amman, March 24, 2015.
[13] Interview with Curt Rhodes, Amman, April 8, 2015.
[14] Interview, May 3, 2015. Name changed for anonymity.
[15] Interview with Ahmad Rababah, Amman, March 22, 2015.
[16] Education Sector Working Group, Access to Education.
[17] Marc Sommers, Coordinating Education During Emergencies and Reconstruction: Challenges and Responsibilities, International Institute for Educational Planning-UNESCO (2004).
[18] Izzy Hendry, “Education After UNRWA: A Lost Generation?” Muftah, December 2, 2015.
[19] UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Out-of-School Children Initiative, Regional Report on Out-of-School Children (Amman: UNESCO, 2014).