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Emergency plan to teach Syria's traumatised young refugees

The "Rainbow Kindergarten”, the first pre-school in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan Image copyright Hannah Maule-Ffinch/Save the Children
Image caption The "Rainbow Kindergarten”, the first pre-school in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan

The urgent need to improve education services for Syrian refugees is to be supported by a partnership between the world's biggest education firm Pearson and the Save the Children charity.

Pearson is contributing an initial £1m to a research and development project to find ways to provide lessons for millions of young people and their families who have been forced out of their homes by the conflict in Syria.

John Fallon, Pearson's chief executive, says he wants "innovative, low-cost, easy-to-replicate solutions that can be shared more widely", to provide education in communities disrupted and displaced by Syria's war.

Save the Children chief executive Justin Forsyth told the BBC that the Syrian crisis was now in the "top league of humanitarian disasters of all time".

"It's one of those tragedies that's appalling on all fronts," said Mr Forsyth.

"In other places, for instance in West Africa and the Ebola crisis, it's terrible but it feels like it's getting better and we've turned a corner.

"But in Syria and the neighbouring countries it feels like it's getting worse and the level of violence has created mass human suffering.

"And for children it has created trauma - they are all traumatised."

Acts of terror

Mr Forsyth says what makes the conflict even more nightmarish has been the use of violence against children as a tactic of terror.

"In this war, children are deliberately the target. There are no two ways around that. In northern Iraq, I recently met a mother who told me how they executed her eight-year-old son in front of her.

"In another case they slit the throats of children in front of their parents. These are deliberate acts of terror. It's a way of getting the community to flee in front of them. You create mass terror.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rearview mirror: There are warnings that refugee camps will become the recruiting ground for extremism

"There aren't many places in the world that happens. Children can get caught up in the crossfire, but to deliberately target them makes this a particularly horrific conflict."

The partnership between the charity and Pearson aims to support education for this "lost generation" and to provide a sense of normality for youngsters who face years in refugee camps.


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They will work on projects such as teacher training, developing a curriculum and using information technology, with the aim of finding ideas that can be replicated and shared.

"There are huge numbers of children out of school. It's going to breed instability and extremism."

Witnesses to atrocity

Without such an intervention to support education, Mr Forsyth says there are plenty of others ready to "step into the vacuum, delivering another form of education that is much more extreme".

Image copyright Other
Image caption Justin Forsyth says education needs to be seen as a key part of humanitarian assistance

"It's in our interest to make this investment in education, let alone for the moral reasons of wanting to help the children themselves.

"What we know about education is that it's critical for the child's future and the country's future.

"But it's also this issue of trauma, many have been tortured or witnessed terrible atrocities and it helps them overcome that trauma to have some normality in their lives, and school is a really important part of that."

"I think we need to see education, after food and water, as being as important as other interventions in an emergency. It's often the poor cousin of humanitarian response, and that's no longer acceptable."

'Overwhelming'

John Fallon, speaking in Pearson's London headquarters, said: "Something like this feels quite overwhelming and humbling, because I look at it and think it's a pretty small contribution in the overall scale of the challenge."

But he says "it's not enough just to make a donation and feel good about yourself".

Image copyright AP
Image caption Camps can become long-term homes for millions of families: Refugees in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon

Instead the partnership with Save the Children will involve Pearson applying its expertise to find ideas for school systems for refugees and to prevent a "vicious circle" in which today's displaced, uneducated youngsters become the fuel for tomorrow's conflicts.

There will be another £500,000 for Save the Children refugee centres in Jordan, but Mr Fallon wants the research project to deliver long-term ideas that can be applied elsewhere.

The company has an ethos of "social impact" and he says "if we're going to be true to that philosophy it has to be something we do for all sections of the community and all parts of the world", including those in the most desperate circumstances.

"It's what a sustainable company that is here for the long term has to be about.

Widening access

"The way that Pearson will prosper as a company over the next five to 10 years is by helping to meet successfully what is one of the biggest needs in the world today, which is providing greater access to good quality education.

Image copyright Pearson
Image caption John Fallon says Pearson wants "social impact" from education on a global scale

"The scandal isn't just about those not in school, but as many again who are in school and not learning anything. We have to focus on the outcomes.

"We have to be as committed to the poorest people on the planet as much as to the increasingly wealthy, aspirational middle class.

"Even in the most difficult communities, you can make significant progress if you've got a clear vision and strategy, and understand what you're trying to do and apply it in a very persistent way.

"We want to stand on the intersection of technology and good teaching. We're now learning much more than we ever did before about what constitutes good teaching and how to maker sure it delivers good outcomes."

Broken promises

But optimism has been intermittent.

This year marks the missed deadline to provide even the most basic primary education for all children around the world, a promise due to be delivered in 2000 and then moved back to 2015.

Unesco is now warning that with a funding gap of $22bn (£15bn) the targets will not even be achieved by a new deadline of 2030.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Uncertain horizons: A refugee camp in Jordan near the border with Syria

On the borders of the Syrian conflict, the Lebanese education minister Elias Bou Saab recently warned the BBC that his country risked being overwhelmed and destabilised by the sheer weight of numbers of refugees.

With the UN education envoy, Gordon Brown, they were seeking $160m (£106m) from the international community to provide education for 500,000 youngsters.

To put that into context, the annual global spend on education is now about $5trn (£3.32trn)

In Turkey, the Qatari government has been supporting education projects for Syrian refugees, in camps where schools are running four shifts a day.

Sheikha Moza has campaigned for recognition that there is often nothing temporary about refugee camps and that young people can live there for their entire childhood, making schools a necessity rather than an optional extra.

There is also the question of making better use of the skills of refugees in the camps, including teachers.

"They want to be productive members of society. They don't want to be passive recipients of hand-outs," she said.

Mr Forsyth says this is a crisis engulfing a whole region. There are refugees who have reached Egypt and are trying to cross the Mediterranean.

It's a problem now lapping on the shores of southern Europe.