Educating Refugee Children

Johannes C. van Nieuwkerk
5 min readJun 19, 2019

I would like to draw your attention to the millions of refugee children who face interruption of their education and propose practical solutions to limit the lifelong damage this causes.

It is estimated that out of the world’s 25 million refugees, 13 million are under the age of 18 and that their lack of access to education is disturbingly high. Whereas worldwide 8% of children do not attend primary school, 39% of refugee children stay without any opportunity to receive basic education. These figures get even worse for secondary education, where instead of 16% general non-participation, 77% of refugee children do not go to secondary school. Finally, whereas 63% of children — as a worldwide average — do not enroll in higher education, this figure is a stunning 99% for refugee children. The refugee education pipeline is collapsing and this needs to be addressed with urgency.

Just in Turkey, an estimate of 400,000 refugee children are not attending school and out of the 27,000 refugee children in Greece, 15,000 (56%) are currently not receiving formal education. These figures are of course primarily a result of the local crisis situation and, luckily, there is ample room for immediate improvement if the enormous funding gap is filled.

Many refugee children arrive to Europe with discontinued education and their cognitive levels within the same age group may be very heterogeneous. Additionally, they originate from different countries and have diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, which further complicate their enrollment in the ordinary education systems of host countries. Refugees who already completed secondary or higher education in their country of origin can often adapt reasonably well to their receiving communities. However, refugee children (and adults) who have faced interrupted primary or secondary education, encounter great difficulty in catching up with their non-refugee peers. Despite possessing the cognitive potential that would make entering higher levels of education possible, they predominantly end up in low level vocational training and low paid jobs.

European member states and their teachers undoubtedly try to do their best to absorb all newcomers through welcome classes and other measures. Nevertheless, results of integration are rather mixed, mainly because the common age/grade-based school systems have not been designed to bridge language, skill or larger knowledge gaps.

A related issue is that the current “focus of integration” is on acquiring the host country’s language competence first, often followed by targeting labor market participation as quick as possible. Both goals are mostly prioritized over connecting to the potential of refugees via already at home achieved or future education. Yet, European countries primarily face a shortage of skilled workers and the levels of expertise required by the labor market will only increase over time. Thus, unless their education levels are optimized, refugees who face “interrupted education” are in great danger to be left behind. The unemployment figures actually indicate that this may already be the case. Again, it is primarily a result of the crisis people went through, but the question remains whether there is room for change.

Looking at the above, Refival doubts that solutions can be found within the current teaching systems, even if these are or would be extended with modern blended learning tools. Therefore, it suggests an innovative, more disruptive, approach for educating refugees and a strategy which also addresses some additional factors. The political agenda in Europe meanwhile targets to as soon as possible return labor-market-wise non-contributing refugees, whilst, at the same time, large groups of others are still in need of asylum and are waiting to enter Europe. Refival consequently intends to increase the capacity for offering vulnerable people the chance to rebuild their lives at safe locations.

Having incubation in low-cost countryside areas in Europe as its starting point or transition stage, Refival envisions to optimize the education and integration of refugees. In a rural setting, it wants to offer fully personalized learning and partially individualized curricula to students.

For its knowledge transfer component, Refival’s learning approach is entirely built on personalized Internet education. Pupils develop understanding via monitored computer-based training and in case personal support is required, this is provided via remote peer learning assistance. Such type of Internet education is knowledge goal driven and its speed of learning is fully determined by each individual student. On the primary school level, a comparable system has been partially implemented at Stevejobsschool, whereas Kahn academy is a good example of the availability of educational materials for it. Following this path, the school curriculum can also be differentiated and rather based on the native language of refugees, whereas the host country’s language can be simultaneously taught as an obligatory second language.

Attending school is about much more than only gathering knowledge though. Besides the added value of a stimulating and structured learning environment, it is the exposure of children to subject-matters, cultures and the points of view of others, which generates affinity and empathy. Collaboration, the initiation of ambition and leadership, and the development of compassion and respect do on top of this also assume personal interaction. Refival expects the education of these more relationship based aspects — which reflect various types of natural inequality in communities — to be less age, knowledge and language sensitive and it therefore proposes a Jena Plan-like methodology to teach them. This means that an entire education pipeline can be built by establishing six three-year age range education groups: pre-school (3–5 y.o.), lower primary (6–8 y.o.), higher primary (9–11 y.o.), lower secondary (12–14 y.o.), higher secondary (15–17 y.o.) and finally tertiary/higher/adult education (18 y.o. and above).

The target of Refival’s approach is to create a revitalizing educational system with a seamless Internet based connection between remote learning and remote working within small rural communities (500–5,000 inhabitants). A system that enables to bridge knowledge and cultural gaps, absorb or integrate newcomers, and facilitate lifelong learning.

If you are supportive of the goals Refival stands for, willing to contribute or aware of organizations that could fund its projects, please share this article or contact me.