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Education in emergencies: unknowns, evidence gaps and research needs

Written by Ana Antunes-Martins and Gunn Benjaminsen

March 16, 2020

On Thursday 27 February 2020, LIDC hosted a roundtable panel discussion on the challenges of delivering education to children affected by conflict and crises. The event convened a panel of high-profile speakers from organisations including UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Food Programme, The World Bank, Plan International, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Queen Rania Foundation. Representatives of policy and practitioner networks, such as The Asia-Pacific Regional Network on Early Childhood, as well as members of LIDC’s academic community, Imperial College London, The Open University and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative also participated. The Panel explored how educational research in conflict-affected settings can transform the education in emergencies landscape by bridging evidence gaps and by providing key pathways for adoption into policy and practice.

75 million at risk

Sustainable Development Goal number 4, ‘access to quality education’, firmly puts inclusive and equitable education on the international development agenda. Quality education is essential to tackle poverty and gender inequalities and create the human capital to address the complex challenges of the future. Yet access to quality education is particularly difficult for those who need it the most, with an estimated 75 million school-aged children either being at risk of, or already missing out on education. This includes the 3.7 million refugee children of school age who are not enrolled in education. Vulnerable children’s exclusion from education is at odds with the pledge countries have made to ‘leave no one behind’ as part of their commitment to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Do we know what works in education in emergencies?

There is a dearth of evidence on ‘what actually works’ to improve access and delivery of education in conflict areas. Transforming education in crises requires solid evidence underpinned by solutions-driven, rigorous academic research. Working in the solutions-space demands an interdisciplinary and intersectoral approach with open and continuous dialogue between key actors, both to set research priorities and to promote the adoption of outputs into policy and practice. The LIDC event was an opportunity for academics to hear directly from development practitioners what research gaps exist and what future research should focus on in order to help practitioners deliver better education programmes.

Putting children at the heart of policy

The learners and their environment are at the heart of effective education. This encompasses recognising the socio-cultural context of the displaced child, their personal history of displacement, family and community settings, as well as individual features such as gender, disability or trauma. This focus on the learner is crucial not only to shape the design of the curriculum – in particular language and how culture and history are taught, and inclusion of a social justice lens – but also to inform holistic education programmes that respond to the child’s needs.

“A child doesn’t grow in a sector”, said Linda Jones, UNICEF Senior Advisor. She argued that education must be part of an integrated package of assistance. This need to comprise health, nutrition, security, wellbeing and psychosocial support and protection from deprivation and violence. Edward Lloyd-Evans from WFP and Emilie Sidaner from UNESCO echoed this thinking. Dr Fernando Lavadenz, Senior Health Specialist at the World Bank, focused on nutrition and health in educational outcomes. Globally, there is a trend to re-prioritise school feeding programmes, for example through the WFP/UNICEF/Education Cannot Wait school feeding partnership.

Teachers as a force for change

Teachers can make or break successful education programmes. In conflict settings, teachers are also essential vehicles to social cohesion and peace building. Effective education in such challenging conditions requires teachers who can foster critical thinking around the curriculum, provide learning support to all their pupils – including those who are affected by trauma – and are able to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable. This includes disabled children. As such, Markus Geisser and Rachael Cox from the International Committee of the Red Cross highlighted the importance of research into strategies to sustain an empowered teacher workforce in the face of difficult working conditions, instability and large class sizes. Teachers who work with displaced or conflict-affected children are often displaced themselves. They may have their own personal trauma to cope with, which poses further challenges. Such empowerment must be founded on effective professional development tools and psychosocial support.


Lessons learned and advice from practitioners

In the past, not all research into education for children affected by conflict and crisis has been up to scratch. Despite some universal principles and transferability of information across contexts, educational research must be based on contextual knowledge. Dr Kelsey Shanks (GCRF Challenge Leader for Education) cautioned against designing educational research that disregards geopolitical circumstances and sensitivities. On this note, Dr Fernando Lavadenz stressed the importance of not only considering the context of the displaced population, but also of aligning educational programmes with the national agendas of the host countries. One example of this is to promote integration refugees into mainstream education.

Finding out what works requires robust data. UNESCO brought up the problem of ‘data saturation’ in the education in emergencies field. Despite large volumes of data, the evidence base remains poor. With some notable exceptions, data suffer from a lack of harmonisation and insufficient scientific rigour. The research community should develop harmonised and interoperable data collection methods to improve this.

The most relevant pieces of such data relate to qualitative learning assessment, which require better and more robust tools. Dr Caroline Hoy from the Queen Rania Foundation emphasised the need to challenge assumptions about ‘official’ figures on learning outcomes. Dr Hoy drew on the example of official metrics of literacy in Jordan. Instead of focusing on actual abilities, literacy is assessed purely on length of school attendance.

Importantly, research will need to prioritise those who are ‘harder to reach’ including girls, disabled children and internally displaced children. It also needs to better understand the barriers to access to education, especially addressing safety and security concerns. Anna Darling from Plan International highlighted that gender-based violence can turn schools into unsafe environments for girls and discourage attendance. She also elaborated on the challenges of continuity of education amongst internally displaced children who tend to change location frequently.

The language of instruction can be another significant barrier to education. Dr Cliff Meyers from the Asia-Pacific Regional Network for Education discussed the merits of mother tongue-based education, and challenges faced by minority language groups taught in a non-native language. Some displaced communities use online education tools. This could be a promising way to address access to education for the ‘harder to reach’. However, practitioners agreed that more research is needed to measure the effectiveness and benefits and mitigate the risks of such approaches.


Challenges ahead: Commitment and funding

Determining the true effectiveness and impact of educational programmes demands long-term follow-up and evaluation. Funding commitments to the educational programmes are often limited to the duration of the emergency response, and do not enable to measure long-term learning outcomes, or monitor other important outputs like inclusion into mainstream education.

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