Education for Children and Youth in Conflict

As a result of the current conflicts in Syria and Mali, nearly one million children have difficult or no access to education. Thousands of schools have been damaged, destroyed, or used for non-educational purposes. When these conflicts end, schools will lie in ruins, many teachers will have disappeared, and hundreds of thousands of children will have missed critical years of schooling. In many cases, this educational deficit will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Data from the UNESCO 2010 EFA Global Monitoring Report's analysis of 35 countries that experienced armed conflict during 1999-2008 reveals that the average duration of the conflicts during this period was 11.6 years -- longer than the majority of children and youth in these countries would typically spend in school, even in peace time.

As a result of this education gap, whole generations of youth from particular regions or ethnicities will lack the basic skills that can allow them to adapt to a difficult (and lingering) post-crisis environment, both socially and economically, yet they will be unable to gain access to struggling formal education systems. When conflict ends, these individuals' educational deficits make it difficult for them to succeed. In a vicious cycle, this skill and knowledge gap compounds inequality and makes it difficult for rebuilding nations to develop a productive economy or participatory governance. If left unaddressed, these challenges reinforce the original roots of conflict and instability.

One promising way to tackle this kind of education gap is through targeted non-formal basic education. This education method is not a prominent part of education planning in post-conflict environments, but it should be.

Non-formal basic education typically targets older learners age 12 and higher, who have limited or no primary school experience. It emphasizes basic literacy and numeracy skills while conveying content that is relevant for older learners, including both 'core' content and life skills. It is offered at flexible times and increments, and conveys condensed material through methodology that builds on older learners' life experiences and knowledge. Such programs usually offer a certificate that allows grade equivalency and reentry into the formal system, or some other stand-alone credential. Often, these programs are combined with skills training in technical fields, health, entrepreneurship etc.

In a post-crisis environment, non-formal education offers many benefits. It allows over-age learners to continue their education without over-burdening the formal system with large numbers of added students. Because it is not dependent upon fixed classrooms or timetables, it can more flexibly and cost-effectively reach marginalized populations, thus producing 'visible results' while the formal system is rebuilding. Because core subjects are combined with practical life, peace-building and work skills, non-formal curricula can be more immediately relevant than pre-conflict curricula, both in content and in target audience. Finally, non-formal education programming can be more easily adjusted to fit emerging labor market dynamics than can the formal system.

If this kind of education has such obvious benefits, why isn't it more often used? Why doesn't it form a larger portion of education reconstruction programming and funding? There are a variety of reasons. One is that during reconstruction, the needs of the formal system are so obvious, and so overwhelming, that planners believe they can't afford to invest in 'parallel' systems or older learners. Yet particularly during early years after conflict, prioritizing less infrastructure-heavy non-formal education -- even for younger learners -- might actually save money and allow planners to spend more time building the capacity and systems to roll out formal education with greater functionality over the long term.

Another concern centers on quality. Some worry that learners will get an inferior education, both because the curriculum doesn't focus on traditional subjects, and because education quality seems more difficult to control using non-formal methods. Yet strong literacy and numeracy skills are widely recognized as the cornerstone of any basic education. Literacy is something that most non-formal basic education programs are expressly designed to impart -- and something that many formal systems, whether conflict-affected or not, struggle with, as the recent increase in reading-focused formal education programming demonstrates. Regarding core subjects, non-formal basic education can and should introduce these through curricula and methods that at the same time convey important life skills.

Regarding quality, there are two considerations. First and fortunately, as recognition of the role and potential of non-formal basic education for youth has grown, numerous high quality models have emerged from which planners can draw. Second, and unfortunately, quality control challenges exist equally with regard to formal education as well. This shouldn't be a reason to disregard non-formal education as an option.

A final reason that non-formal basic education is not more prominent during post conflict reconstruction may be that a larger role would require ministries and donors to re-think traditional approaches to teaching methodology, curricular content, and delivery methods. Such re-thinking could revolutionize not only non-formal, but also formal approaches to basic education. As exciting as such a revolution may be to some, it would bring unwelcome change to others.

In post-conflict regions, where so much has already been upended, the prospect that basic education could be transformed by non-traditional teaching, curriculum and delivery may seem too risky. Yet it is also worth considering. Hundreds of thousands of children have already sacrificed their education to conflict. Maybe post conflict reconstruction is precisely the time for innovation and change in basic education. If not now, then when?

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This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Alliance for International Youth Development (AIYD) entitled "Beyond Emergency: How Conflict Impacts Global Youth." Posts will address issues facing global youth impacted by conflict, underscoring challenges including livelihoods among urban youth refugees and access to basic education in times of conflict, among others. For more information, click here.

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