Background: The Northern Syria Context
The most recent figures from UNHCR suggest that at least 9.6 million Syrians are characterized as persons of concern, including 6.5 million internally displaced (UNHCR 2015b). Approximately half of these individuals are children. All three of the most comprehensive needs assessments undertaken for northern Syria found that children were the most vulnerable IDPs there (UNOCHA 2013; REACH et al. 2014; UNOCHA 2015). As of December 2013, for example, approximately 57 % of children in the northern governorates of Syria were thought to be out of school (UNOCHA 2013). By 2014, this figure appeared to have increased to 63 %, and the cohort was deemed to have the second worst enrollment rate in the world (REACH et al. 2014). Although the veracity of the specific figures is in some doubt because of the challenging nature of data collection in Syria, the fact remains that most children in northern area are out of school. The reasons behind this reality vary, but lack of safe educational spaces and materials to support education are one key supply-side determinant, and the opportunity costs of education are demand-side considerations. These figures take on even greater meaning when contrasted with precrisis figures, when Syria had a 93 % net enrollment rate at the primary level and a 95 % literacy rate (REACH et al. 2014).
Education is under attack in Syria, which is a key country of concern for the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, an association established by organizations interested in advocating for the “protection of students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack” (Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack 2016). In 2013, it was estimated that at least 20 % of the schools across Syria had either been destroyed or made unfit for use (Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack 2014). In a Human Rights Watch’s report from 2013, targeted attacks on schools, arrests of children therein, and the use of coercion in schools by agents of multiple parties to the conflict were documented, as was increasing fear among parents about sending their children into these schools (Human Rights Watch 2013). The trends have continued throughout the conflict with no signs of abating. In 2014, UNICEF reported 68 attacks on schools across Syria (UNICEF 2015c). This figure is likely to be much lower than the actual figure if based on anecdotal evidence, including ongoing attacks on schools in northern Syria at the time of this writing (Author unknown 2015). One theory behind the continuation of such attacks is the ongoing battle for consolidation of power and factional strongholds.
Despite the existence of four UN agencies with education-related mandates, and even the passing of UN Resolution 2165 allowing for cross-border humanitarian assistance to be provided to areas in northern Syria from Turkey, the amount of education assistance being provided to school-age children there is still woefully insufficient. Throughout 2014, education assistance in these areas reached less than 5 % of the children. The nature of that assistance varied, but the preponderance of it focused on improving the availability of learning spaces, with a paucity of support for activities related to improved quality and little to no support for certification. In fact, certification options for children are limited. Children in government-supported schools—schools in which personnel and teachers are still on the government payroll—can get their exams certified. Some organizations providing learning opportunities facilitate access to these exams, but this is a dangerous and untenable solution for most children and not a long-term solution for such a large population informally viewed as affiliated with the “opposition.”
Other organizations facilitate access to examinations provided by the “interim” Ministry of Education, an entity comprised of opposition leaders supported by a number of traditional and nontraditional donors, positioning itself as the next government of Syria but presently based in Turkey. Both options are risky, requiring travel through areas of active conflict and necessitating trust in intermediaries and proctoring agents. In the end, the longer that certification remains unresolved in northern Syria, the more likely it will be a factor for disengagement on the part of students and their parents. Save the Children (2014, 8) noted that “[t]he certification problem has led to an increase in school dropout and lower enrollment rates, a trend likely to continue until this issue is resolved.”