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In 1954, the United States opened its borders to a refugee from Syria. His son, Steve Jobs, became one of the world’s most creative entrepreneurs, revolutionising industries from personal computers and animated movies to mobile phones and digital publishing. All that became possible because his host country afforded him a school and teachers who helped him develop his potential.
Globally, refugee children are still five times more likely to be excluded from schools than non-refugees.
The world is seeing yet another massive wave of refugees—this time from Ukraine. It is incumbent on us to help their children find security and grasp opportunity rather than languish on the margins of our societies. The urgent first step is to provide access to schooling. For refugees from Ukraine, that mission is largely accomplished although, globally, refugee children are still five times more likely to be excluded from schools than non-refugees. But it is only after refugee children have restarted their education in a new place that the real work starts: they need to adjust to different academic expectations, learn a new language, forge a social identity that incorporates both their background and their adopted country of residence—and manage all this amid what is often conflicting pressures from family and peers. These difficulties are magnified when refugees are segregated in poor neighbourhoods with disadvantaged schools.
For most of Ukraine’s neighbours, this is the first time they have been confronted with a refugee wave of this magnitude. That makes it hard to find good answers by looking to the past. It is a moment where looking outwards to other countries with greater experience can make a real difference.
Helping countries look beyond borders to learn with and from others is where the OECD is at its best. When it comes to refugee children, the OECD’s comparative analysis shows that the crunch time is usually not the point of entry but afterwards, when educators and school systems decide whether to offer learning environments adapted to their individual needs. Within two months of starting school, Swedish schools assess all new arrivals both in their language skills and prior subject-knowledge, the latter, if possible, in their mother tongue so that language doesn’t get in the way. Based on the assessment, schools then establish the best educational trajectory for each newcomer student. In Finland teachers work with each student and their families on a curriculum tailored to their needs, based on their prior school history, age and other factors.
Beyond academics, refugee students need social and emotional support. Here, too, the world offers many lessons. Estonia is currently organising summer camps for Estonian and Ukrainian children from 7 to 14 years old to interact with peers, learn the Estonian language, exchange about their culture and promote their well-being. Back in 2015, Austria established Mobile Intercultural Teams, which support teachers who work with refugee children. They provide individual advice, pursue casework with students and deliver workshops to improve classroom climate. These teams also interact with parents to integrate them into the school community and serve as a language bridge between students, parents and the school. In the Netherlands, the Pharos programme is specifically designed to address the social-emotional needs of refugee children, strengthen peer support by offering opportunities to share their histories and experiences with other children, and build teacher awareness and capacity. Capitalising on the natural camaraderie that comes of playing sports together, the national Football League in Germany (Bundesliga) launched the Welcome to Football initiative in 2015. It has been so successful at welcoming young refugees that 24 of the country’s professional clubs launched similar schemes. In Canada, Music from Hope for refugee students helps them discover musical instruments and have fun.
Education gives refugees the tools to contribute economically. It motivates them to participate in the social and civic life of their new communities. And it equips them with both the wherewithal and the social connections to rebuild their country when the time comes.
While integration into the host community is vital, Ukraine will need its people back with the right knowledge and skills to help rebuild the country. To this end, education systems need to support Ukrainian students in their own language and culture. Many countries are doing this through the All-Ukraine Online school, prepared by Ukraine’s education authorities. In some countries, Ukrainian refugee students also attend afternoon or Saturday classes to develop their mother tongue, learn about their culture and history, or follow subjects in their home curriculum. Making this work requires close co-ordination with Ukrainian education authorities and innovative approaches to make the education systems of the host country and Ukraine as compatible as possible. Education ministries also need to establish fair and consistent processes for recognising and evaluating the credentials of refugees, and ensure that Ukrainian school leavers can complete their studies with the Ukrainian high-school exam. The OECD is working closely with hosting countries to support this through its vast Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) network.
None of this is easy and none of this can be done overnight—but nowhere can integration and support be better achieved than through school. Education gives refugees the tools to contribute economically. It motivates them to participate in the social and civic life of their new communities. And it equips them with both the wherewithal and the social connections to rebuild their country when the time comes. Many OECD countries show that this is an attainable goal. In the teeth of war, it is still within our means to deliver a future for hundreds and thousands of learners who may not otherwise have one. The task is not to make the impossible possible but to make the possible attainable.