DAY OF GENERAL DISCUSSION 2008: Content and Quality of Education Provided for Children in Emergency Situations

Summary: Report from working group 2 of the 2008 Day of General Discussion on the Right to Education in Emergencies.

Susan Nicolai, of the IASC Education Cluster, began the presentations, arguing that: “Striving for good quality education is as important in emergencies as in any other situation. Content that is poorly taught also keeps children away. Relevance and inclusion are essential elements of an education that responds to children's needs.”

Ms Nicolai noted several elements of good quality education, as suggested by a group of students and teachers following the Asian Tsunami. They are that:

  • Local children and refugee children have access together
  • Boys and girls are treated equally
  • Parents are welcome in the school and help support the school
  • Drinking water is available to children
  • Teachers treat all children with respect
  • Children treat each other, and teachers, with respect

Not just about building schools

She also agreed that the level of aid allocated to education in emergencies is “pitiful”, but emphasised that quality and inclusion must be priorities too.

“There is too much focus on building schools rather than the quality of education, because it has more tangible impact,” she said. “In an emergency it is all too easy to return to conventional teaching methodology.”

Ms Nicolai insisted efforts must be concentrated towards a third area: preventing conflict and building peace.

“Of the 37 peace agreements signed since 1995, few mention education at all. In addition, security needs to be focused on. Attacks on schools continue unabated.”

Chris Talbot, of UNESCO, provided a wealth of information during the afternoon on the features of quality education, and the tensions resulting from its attempted definition.

He said that while curricula are important, what actually happens in the classroom is more so. He said: “What are children really learning? This is often much smaller and narrower than the official curriculum. Is there adequate material provision for learning to take place? We cannot even notice by making nice visits to schools, as everyone will have a textbook, everything will seem great. The best NGO practice is to get beneath the surface.”

Emergencies: an opportunity to improve

Conflict often precipitates attention to the learning programme, Mr Talbot said, which may create opportunities for positive change, the chance to modernise the curriculum, and an open political space which did not exist before.

“There is an opportunity in curriculum change for education in reconciliation. This is an ambitious goal but doesn't mean we shouldn't try for some elements of it – although we have to be careful about the demands we make on communities when the last thing they will be concerned with, especially if they have had relatives killed for example, is reconciliation.”

He said it was crucial to acknowledge that the content of curricula would always be contested, while success would be impossible without listening to communities and children. He made two overarching recommendations:

  • Make real quality education, support inclusive curriculum processes, which must be the fruit of national and local reflection.
  • There needs to be a greater provision of technical expertise to support the ministries of education in their curriculum planning process. There is plenty of research and information available, but this needs to be brought to bear on the actual processes.

Play important too

A representative from a Japanese human rights organisation argued that the Committee should also refer to the articles on the rights to play and leisure in their recommendations. During the Japanese earthquakes, it was clear play could be very important in emergency situations, such as in helping to recover from psychological harm. This issue is neglected even more so than education in emergences, he said.

A representative from UNICEF remarked on the need for a peaceful school environment, which is essential for learning in the first place.

Moira, also from UNICEF, suggested Mr Talbot’s recommendations would be time-consuming, and so identifying countries that a re pre-fragility or pre-conflict should be the starting point for a long-term process.

The experience of a representative from Save the Children Norway indicated that hungry children, when presented with both a high-energy biscuit and a game, would often first take the game.

“While the stomach is hungry, the head is also hungry,” she said.

A member of World Vision wanted to stress the importance of life skills. She said this needed to be integrated, and helped children to protect themselves from, for example, gender-based violence.

She also argued that while Mr Talbot had suggested educational standards were difficult to measure, it does not mean people should not try.

Peter, of the Right to Education Project, encouraged the Committee to consider a general comment within the framework of the ‘four As’ – education must be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable.

An expert on psychosocial issues from World Vision stressed that education is key in normalising children's lives and resulting in good mental health. He said psychosocial issues are still not adequately recognised across the board, and called for a Day of General Discussion on the subject.

The Arigatou Foundation wanted to highlight the importance of using religion in emergency situations, and its involvement in education.

Education not just primary level

A representative from UNICEF noted that the right to education is not just about primary education, but begins at birth. Early childhood education, including play, should also be considered.

Mr Talbot agreed, emphasising that tertiary and higher were also crucial. “There is a danger of investing too much in primary, and then you don't have teachers, nurses and such to help in reconstruction,” he said.

Roberta Cecchetti, of Save the Children Alliance, began the afternoon’s discussion with a presentation explaining the use of ‘clusters’ in emergencies.

A participant from the Ministry of Education in Sudan asked about the difficulties of providing education in different languages.

Mr Krappman and Mr Brent of the Committee on the Rights of the Child asked about the participation of children, child-centred learning, and community schooling.

A representative from UNICEF Cameroon said: “ You can't just land in a place, you have to build communication bridges with leading partners in order to establish education programmes. This includes accounting for the local culture. That can be a mental block where there is resistance to help from the outside – this is where you need the help of leaders.”

Mr Brent noted the importance of the participation of different cultures in devising a curriculum.

Roberta Cecchetti, of Save the Children Alliance, asked how the Committee could have first-hand information without reporting from Member States. She suggested that guidelines for reporting be more exact, including for example rights violations in emergencies.

No one-size-fits-all curriculum

Mr Talbot said that the curriculum is so complicated in each place, there is no one-size fits all. “Ministries need to be capacitated to analyse their curriculum and to be sensitive to the views of participants. This sort of process takes years. Just listening to community groups of all kinds, unions, schools etc. is important. I wish there were a perfect answer and a curriculum that fits all. However, there are some very good tools, and some very good people to help.”

Mr Brent asked whether, in respect of the universality of the CRC, it might be possible to have a universal curriculum on human rights.

‘Imposing human rights education won’t work’

“There are certain core areas of a human rights syllabus,” Mr Talbot said, “however, there is a need to be aware of some of the programmes drawn up by well-intentioned westerners who cook up a wonderful human rights programmes and try to say ‘we can come and help’. Ministries don't typically want to hear that. They don't want the programme you have cooked up in Sydney, New York or Geneva – they want you to come along and support them, and bring your money and expertise, not impose a programme. It is very difficult to convince the do-gooders of this.”

Another representative from the Right to Education project said: “It is not the child that needs to adapt to the education available, it is the education that needs to adapt to the needs of the child.”

A participant remarked that the needs of children with disabilities had not yet been discussed. She said: “These children are more likely to be separated from parents, and more likely to be victims of violence, including sexual abuse. Inclusive education is crucial.”

Mr Talbot once again emphasised there was no catch-all solution to the issue. He also noted that different approaches could work. Home-based schooling had been a solution in some cases, for example Afghanistan. UNESCO is currently wirting a book on alternative education.

A challenge, he said, was also the transition from an emergency situation to non-emergency situation. Education sometimes actually improved during an emergency, and it then reverted back to older ways once reconstruction was underway.

Finally, Mr Talbot remarked how certification could be an integral aspect of education. He said children in emergency situations had spoken to him of the difficulties in having nothing to show for their education in refugee camps.

Overall recommendations 

  • All children, including old as well as young, and girls, must be included
  • There must be an emphasis on quality
  • There is a need for careful analysis of the situation to ensure education is relevant
  • The overarching goal is to empower by what and how children learn
  • Transition to regular schools must be as seamless as possible
  • There should be a general comment on the issue




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