Gordon Brown, Julia Gillard & Kevin Watkins Discuss Funding Education for Syrian Child Refugees

The panel discussed the aim of the new UN International Commission on Financing Global Education, chaired by Brown, to provide one million school places for Syrian refugee children in neighbouring countries, as well as the wider challenge of educating refugees globally. The Frontline event took place ten days ahead of a major UN-sponsored Syrian relief conference in London.

“At our current rates of change,” said Gillard, “it won’t be until 2111 that the world first sees a generation of sub-Saharan African girls who universally have a primary and lower secondary education. That means no one in this room will live to see it. It’s too long to wait.”

Since 2010, the enrolment of Syrian refugee children in regional schools has increased from 60,000 to 200,000, “largely down to the advocacy work that Gordon has done,” said Watkins.

“It has both demonstrated what is possible, and allows us to hang our heads in shame at what we’ve allowed to happen. It’s taken an entire primary school generation to stop us sitting on our hands,” Watkins continued.

Many of the school places found for the refugees are in “double shift” schools. Existing schools double the number of students that can learn by running the same programme twice in one day. Typically, the existing students join one shift and the refugee children join another.

“Four years ago, an average Syrian child had the same prospects of getting through primary school as a kid in a high-performing middle income country like Thailand,” said Watkins. “In the space of a single generation, they’ve gone to education indicators close to Sierra Leone and South Sudan. You can see these consequences on streets across the region – there’s an epidemic of child labour. They’re forced into labour markets and early marriage.”

Watkins quoted from Graça Machel’s 1996 report on children in conflict: “It’s difficult to imagine greater depths to which humanity can sink when you look at the violation of rights and freedoms of children in conflict.”

“Half the children who are out of school in the world are in conflict zones,” said Brown. “It’s now said it is safer to be a soldier in a conflict zone than to be a girl because of the risk of child marriage, child trafficking and child labour.”

Gillard emphasised that increasing education for refugee children isn’t just about more school places, but about raising the quality of the education the children receive.

While there are “121 million children of primary and lower secondary age out of school” in the world, she said, there are “250 million who get access to some schooling… but still can’t do most basic literacy and numeracy tasks.”

“Is there a great deal of point in having kids go and sit in this thing called a school if they aren’t learning? In many countries where we’re trying to improve education systems, there are nowhere near enough trained teachers. It requires us to think how… to deliver education in a systemised way. We’re thinking about some breakthrough models that can be scaled up and rolled out in some of the poorest places on earth.”

Brown said: “it is almost ridiculous to think that when you’re in desperate need, it’s only the public sector who’s going to contribute. We need foundations, we need charities, philanthropists, businesses to make their contribution to humanitarian aid.

“We need to find other governments who are prepared to take this up. Both Julia and I tried to make our governments pro-education in the global development sphere, but we need more governments to take up the cause, and we need to find philanthropists and foundations. People are prepared to give to education in their own country, but when it comes to global education – very little.”

Audience member Dr Mairead Collins from Christian Aid raised concerns of families in Lebanon that the late timetables in double shift schools prevented them allowing their daughters to go to school in the dark, for safety reasons. How does the commission address these obstacles, she asked?

“Safe transport to schools is a well-understood problem,” said Brown, and money will be directed towards it. “Safe schools are a very important concept now,” he said. “We have assumed schools are safe havens without doing anything about it. But you’ve got to make the schools safe.”

Gillard agreed, saying “overwhelmingly, funds for education come from domestic governments, and for many domestic governments, until they’ve got robust taxation systems you’re always going to be running behind the curve.”

Augustus Della-Porta, trustee of Educate a Child International, said he has an eight-year-old niece in the besieged town of Yarmouk in Syria who has never been to school. What about education for the children still in Syria?

Chris Gunness, spokesman for UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said children in Palestine often tell him that they hear education offers hope – but there is no political situation in which this hope can be realised. “In Gaza, there’s 44% unemployment”, Gunness said, “and in Lebanon, Palestinians are banned from more than 100 professions. What does it mean to have education in the absence of a political process?”, he asked.

“Education isn’t the solution for every problem,” said Gillard, but “it’s hard to imagine a problem that isn’t advantaged by the benefits that education brings.”

“If people are educated, there is more capacity to negotiate differences and find solutions to conflict, to look for peace and stability, and to build institutional government systems.”

Brown said there are “new proposals for economic zones in these countries so that people denied the chance to work as refugees are finally given a chance to work within economic zones. The World Bank is now involved in Jordan and Lebanon, and I think will be involved in Turkey… [These proposals] will prevent a lot of child labour. Because [at present] children become the only income earners.”

“Despite the failure of the political process, we cannot leave these children without an education,” Brown said.

“We cannot allow them to become not just a lost generation, but a discontented and dispossessed generation, with all the implications that 200 million young people growing up in the Middle East have for the security of that region and the rest of the world.”