Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Learning Far From Home

In a new video, HGSE researchers describe their contributions to UN efforts to improve education for refugee children around the world
Refugee children

In 2011, Assistant Professor Sarah Dryden-Peterson, Ed.D.'09, authored Refugee Education: A Global Review, providing a comprehensive look at the limitations of programming available for displaced populations of children since World War II.

Commissioned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the report detailed the low quality of existing education programs in some countries and the lack of access in others. As noted in the executive summary, “Girls are at a particular disadvantage; in Eastern and the Horn of Africa, only five girls are enrolled for every 10 boys.” In addition, children were not learning at benchmark levels, teacher-pupil ratios averaged as high as 1:70, and many teachers lacked the training that prepared them to teach.

The extensive review, and its subsequent presentation to 160 governments, led to the development of a multiyear Education Strategy published by UNHCR, which Dryden-Peterson helped to draft. Since its release in 2012, funding for refugee education has increased — from 4 percent of UNHCR’s budget in 2010 to 6 percent in 2013 — as has staffing. 

“Before the UNHCR Global Education Strategy was launched in 2012, there were six UNHCR staff members working on education, three at headquarters in Geneva and three in field-based positions," says Dryden-Peterson. "Less than three years later, there are 44 dedicated education officers: 15 on the global team, working at headquarters and regionally; and 29 in field-based positions. There has also been a significant increase in long-term contractual staff for education, particularly in emergency contexts.”

Real-World Relevance

To monitor the efficacy of the implementation of the strategies, Dryden-Peterson and a team of several doctoral and master’s students enrolled in her class on Education in Armed Conflict have worked with 14 UNHCR priority countries — Bangladesh, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Sudan, Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, and Yemen — to track progress. As part of their work, observations were made and interviews conducted with local staff of UNHCR, UNICEF, various NGOs, and national Ministries of Education, who oversee the following strategies:

  • Ensure that 3 million refugee children have access to primary education.
  • Expand secondary education to 1 million young people.
  • Provide safe schools and learning environments for all young learners.
  • Ensure that 70 percent of refugee girls and boys achieve quality learning in primary school.
  • Provide teacher training that leads to professional qualifications so that 80 percent of teachers are trained.
  • Provide non-formal education and training opportunities for 40 percent of young people, male and female.
  • Increase by 100 percent the number of students attending tertiary education.
  • Enable early childhood education for 500,000 children aged 3 to 5.
  • Increase literacy rates among refugee adults by 50 percent.

“The global strategy provides high-level guidance on priorities for refugee education,” says Dryden-Peterson, who notes that 7,453 unique visitors have downloaded the document. “It is in its adaptation in each local context that the impacts on refugee families and communities are felt.” To deepen the investigation into the 14 countries, Dryden-Peterson’s team conducted three field-based case studies, in Kenya, Rwanda, and Egypt. Doctoral candidate Elizabeth Adelman conducted field research in Egypt in the summer of 2014.

“We wanted to look particularly at Egypt because it represents an interesting case of thinking about whether and how to include refugees in the national system or set up separate schools,” says Dryden-Peterson. “The answer is not always straightforward, especially in reconciling issues of curriculum, language of instruction, and how refugees and nationals get along in classrooms. In some contexts, national laws and policies, and even the preferences of refugee community members, may conflict with the global strategy.”

Complexities of Local Settings

From Adelman’s field work in Egypt, Dryden-Peterson says, “we learned more about the complexities of implementing a global strategy in a local context. It requires a long period of time, many conversations among multiple actors, and the building of relationships through multiple levels.” A major challenge in the process, says Adelman, is thinking about “what is best for refugees in the short term, but also trying to think long term.”

With her ongoing work in this area, Dryden-Peterson remains on the forefront of ensuring “access, quality, and sustainability” of these burgeoning education programs serving displaced children around the world.

“Especially in a situation where the future is unknowable, in terms of whether the future will be in a country of exile, a return to a home country, or in a country of asylum in a distant land,” says Dryden-Peterson, “education is the one element you can take on that journey that can help to build a strong future.”


Get Usable Knowledge — Delivered
Our free monthly newsletter sends you tips, tools, and ideas from research and practice leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sign up now.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles