Enabling refugee adolescents to thrive through innovative secondary education

By Marjolijn van Raaij, Project Coordinator at Sky School

In her 2014 Ted Talk: Let’s help refugees thrive, not just survive, Melissa Fleming, Chief Spokesperson at the UNHCR made a powerful comment about refugee education:

‘’We should think of refugee camps and communities as more than just population centers where people languish waiting for the war to end. Rather, we should think of refugee camps as centers of excellence, where refugees can triumph over their trauma and train for the day that they can go home as agents of positive change and social transformation.’’

Refugee education is at a vital turning point. While accessing education is a problem for all refugees, young adults aged 16 - 25 face particular difficulty in continuing their education once they have become uprooted. While young children can learn the local language more easily in time to catch up and enrol in the national education system, older students are often not able to enrol in public schools, and it becomes nearly impossible after they have turned 18. Even if they do manage to enrol, language barriers, work, and family responsibilities make it incredibly difficult to keep up. In these circumstances, earning a high school diploma becomes a long and winding road littered with thorns and hurdles; only 22% of refugee adolescents enrol in secondary school globally - in low income countries this number can be  as low as 9% (1). As a result, youths remain unemployed or are forced into degrading working conditions. On top of this, adolescents who are not enrolled in secondary education are at increased risk of exploitation, sexual abuse and radicalisation (2).

Sky School was founded as a nonprofit organisation working to establish the first globally accessible and accredited high school curriculum for refugees and displaced youth.

Sky School students in Amman (Jordan) during a class.

Sky School students in Amman (Jordan) during a class.

Adopting user-centered design

Refugee learners are actively involved in every phase of development; Sky School’s team incorporates a number of people who have been displaced or otherwise affected by conflict in their country. The Promising Practices report makes an important observation, stating that when we look at education, communities understand their needs better than external actors (3). Sky School wants and needs refugee learners to be included at every step of the way: missing the mark on relevance for the target group is not an option - the widespread nature of this issue within existing diploma programmes is one of the very reasons why Sky School was founded.   

The Sky School curriculum aims to combine academic and skill-based subjects, always ensuring relevance within personal contexts. Sky School trains facilitators to act as ‘learning mentors’, committed to guiding students and sharing their expertise in interactive ways. During Sky School’s pilot short course on the topic of social entrepreneurship, a group of students started a campaign to inform their peers about sexual violence towards girls in their community in Amman, Jordan. Another initiative is now working to improve internet access in Kakuma Camp in Kenya, and yet another aimed to combat police harassment against refugees in Athens, Greece. Providing students with an environment in which their ideas are taken seriously, and their sense of agency is reinforced, is fundamental if we want them to thrive and become active citizens who create positive change.

War does not only kill people - it also kills people’s aspirations.
— Zena, Syrian Sky School student
Sky School students discussing an assignment at Kakuma Camp (Kenya)

Sky School students discussing an assignment at Kakuma Camp (Kenya)

Sky School is developing a modular curriculum, meaning that students may complete the programme in the suggested two years, or they could take more (or less) time depending on their personal circumstances. Alternatively, students can complete one module rather than the entire curriculum, and receive a certificate of completion. Whether students are being resettled, working to support their families or in need of medical care, their education will move with them and adapt. Sky School graduates are encouraged to leverage their new skills and knowledge to make a positive impact on society, by accessing tertiary education, skilled jobs and/or setting up their own businesses and projects.

Technology as an enabling tool

Technology is becoming increasingly accessible to displaced persons, with 86% of Syrian refugees having access to a smartphone (4) and 72% of refugees in Kenya having access to 3G connectivity (5), to name a few. Sky School’sblended learning approach combines in person and online learning. Through a growing network of learning hubs, learning mentors will meet with students several times a week. Their role is to facilitate learning, and support and inspire students in their learning journeys. Equally important is the fact that the Sky School curriculum will be accessible worldwide through an online learning platform. Sky School works with Aula Education to provide an online ‘hub’ accessible through all smartphones, tablets and computers. These platforms allow students to access all class materials, as well interact with other students and facilitators. In the scenario that a student suddenly has to pack up and leave, the ability to stay in touch with their teacher and their classmates can be a great source of comfort.

The graduates of the Sky School pilot course in Amman (Jordan), in December 2017.

The graduates of the Sky School pilot course in Amman (Jordan), in December 2017.

Improving collaboration and developing innovative partnerships

Sky School’s hubs are always coordinated by local organisations. Sky School provides the curriculum content, technology and learning mentor training, while the local partner organisation provides a team of learning mentors, a learning space (e.g. a classroom) and local coordination. Courses are adaptable, and Sky School works in collaboration with partner organisations to make changes to course content or course delivery.

Sky School students at work at Kakuma Camp (Kenya).

Sky School students at work at Kakuma Camp (Kenya).

The organisation is working on a strategy for recognition and progression pathways, to make sure that all graduating Sky School students have access to a wide range of opportunities after their completion of the programme. It is worth noting that Sky School has not set out to compete with national education systems in attracting refugee learners. The students that Sky School aims to cater for are those who have dropped out or been denied access all together.

Support teachers to help ensure quality

In Kenya, Sky School works with Urise, a community based organisation. The teachers that facilitated the Sky School pilot course are refugees. They expressed that being given the trust and resources to teach the course themselves had a hugely positive impact on their sense of agency and empowerment. All too often we forget that within refugee communities massive diversity exists. Whether they are teachers, doctors, artists or scientists, they are people who can (and more often than not want to) make a positive contribution in rebuilding individual agency as well as communities. Sky School supports all its learning mentors with training and educational expertise. This strategy of global accessibility combined with a local focus provides working opportunities for locals and local refugees: Sky School’s method aims to be more cost efficient and more rewarding for all parties involved.

At its core, all of these aspects of Sky School’s work circle back to the belief that investing in refugee learners through education is vital in rebuilding uprooted communities. In crisis settings we are continually caught up in meeting only the immediate needs - shelter, food, sanitation (not always to a sufficient standard, but that is a topic for another time), thereby creating an environment in which refugees have no choice but to live from day to day, forced to become passive members of societies who would benefit greatly from their personal contribution and participation.

The graduates of the Sky School pilot course in Kakuma Camp (Kenya), in December 2017.

The graduates of the Sky School pilot course in Kakuma Camp (Kenya), in December 2017.

Sky School has set out on a mission to empower refugees by enabling them to become the peacemakers, leaders and changemakers that the world needs. As the Promising Practices report phrases perfectly, ‘’with refugee children being five times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children, the need for innovative, quality education programming has never been greater.’’ (6) Melissa Fleming’s perspective on refugee camps and communities is in line with Sky School’s vision: to provide a curriculum that will assist refugees in triumphing over trauma, and become agents of positive change. While governments stand at a crossroads in shaping their attitude towards adolescent refugee education, Sky School is paving its own way, hand in hand with the learners who will travel it.

1 Promising Practices, p4.
2 UNHCR, Secondary Education for Refugee Adolescents, Education: Issue Brief 6, 2015.
3 Promising Practices, p14.
4 PSU News, ‘’IST Researchers Explore Technology Use in Syrian Refugee Camps,’’ 2015. <http://news.psu.edu/story/350156/2015/03/26/research/ist-researchers-explore-technology-use-syrian-refugee-camp>  
5 NewsDeeply, ‘’Tech Innovation Must Serve Refugees In East Africa, Too,’’ 2017.
6 Promising Practices, p26.