At 1.30 pm on a balmy October afternoon in Beirut, 12-year old Nour and her friends are congregating outside their school, patiently waiting to be allowed inside. The gates are shut, indicating the school is not yet ready for the second shift, which enrolls only Syrian refugee students like Nour. On the other side of the gate, Lebanese students wait excitedly for the school day to end. As the bell goes off, the Lebanese students rush out while the Syrian students lean against the school boundary walls, waiting for the last Lebanese student to leave. Nour and her Lebanese peers see each other, exchanging glances, but no words.
In 2013, Lebanon’s public schools began running a second-shift system, enabling Nour and other Syrian learners in Lebanon to access Lebanese public education. This move mirrors global shifts in refugee education policy, including UNHCR’s 2012 and 2019 education strategies and the Global Compact on Refugees, that call for greater inclusion of refugees within national education systems. Currently around 156,000 Syrian refugee students are enrolled in Lebanese public schools. What can refugee hosting countries learn from Lebanon’s experience of including Syrians within its public schools?
Our research for the Arab States 2019 GEM Report draws on interviews with teachers, students, parents and policymakers in Lebanon conducted between 2015-2019 and provides a nuanced understanding of Lebanon’s second-shift system. In 2012 as the Syrian refugee influx began, the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) opened public schools to Syrian students. However, as the refugee crisis in Lebanon expanded, public schools were unable to accommodate the growing student population. In response, MEHE established a second shift system, open only to Syrian learners, covering formal basic education (Grades KG – 9). Teachers already working in the system in the first shift and newly hired contractual teachers were assigned to teach in the second shift and were paid on an hourly basis.
The double-shift model of inclusion has demonstrated some advantages
In our work we find three advantages of this approach to inclusion. Firstly, shifting responsibility of refugee education to the national system has focused attention towards Lebanon’s underfunded and strained public education system. This renewed attention has enabled the global education community to fund programs that would equally benefit both Lebanese and Syrian children, simultaneously while strengthening Lebanon’s education system, the benefits of which could continue accruing even after Syrians are no longer in Lebanon.
A second advantage has been MEHE’s enhanced oversight and close involvement in refugee education. To harmonize curricula and education options available to Syrians in formal and non-formal schools in Lebanon, MEHE has created defined pathways for out-of-school and struggling Syrian students to transition to public schools. In so doing, MEHE has sought to bring coherence and structure to a loose constellation of actors operating within refugee education in Lebanon, each previously making different decisions around the purposes of education for Syrians.
Finally, inclusion has enabled Syrian learners’ access to certified public education in Lebanon. This certification is portable, and therefore of value, particularly as Syrians consider their migration and education trajectories.
Yet challenges remain to educate Syrian refugees in Lebanon…
Implementation of the second shift has not been without major challenges, as the Arab States 2019 GEM Report shows, particularly in regard to quality, social connection and sustainability. Past research has documented a shortage of teaching and learning resources in the first shift in Lebanon’s public system – gaps that are further exacerbated in the second shift. Instructional time in the second shift is reduced when compared to the first shift. This has resulted in non-academic and extra-curricular subjects being pushed out of the second shift school day. Few supports have been provided to second-shift teachers and school leaders. While new teacher training has been developed around child protection, differentiated instruction and integrating technology in the classroom, much of these trainings have targeted first shift teachers, with little attention to adapting approaches to the linguistic and instructional needs of refugee children.
Even before the influx of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, social cohesion and stability in the country was fragile. Education can be an important mechanism for building pathways to harmony. However, the temporal model of inclusion—by virtue of design and separation of Lebanese and Syrian students—is unable to create opportunities for social cohesion. At no point do the two interact with each other at school.
Lebanese teachers are an important conduit for Syrian students to develop social connections with Lebanese nationals. While Lebanese teachers have supported students’ academic progress and success, teachers feel unprepared for supporting Syrian students as they struggle with past experiences or current realities in Lebanon as non-citizens.
NGOs in the non-formal education sector have attempted to foster social connections through sports and activity-based educational programing designed to bring together Lebanese and Syrian students to collaborate toward common goals. However, these programs have not been scaled and have remained dependent on unpredictable donor funding.
While an increasing number of Syrian refugee students have enrolled in education, there has been considerable concern regarding their persistence and transition within the system, particularly given the lack of donor funding for academic support programs. In the 2018-19 school year, the average transition rate for students from one education level to the next was 58.6%, ranging from a high of 74.5% (grade KG to grade 1) to a low of 39.3% (grade 7 to grade 8). Over 10,000 teachers and school staff members have been hired temporarily for the second shift whose livelihoods depend on Lebanon continuing to receive external funding. With uncertainty about the longevity of the second shift, questions linger about the futures of both teachers and learners.
Inclusion within national education systems can enable refugee children’s access to and experiences of quality education. However, in the absence of multi-year funding that focuses on teaching, learning, and belonging, and a long-term education sector plan for both nationals and refugees from the beginning of a refugee influx, inclusion and its benefits will continue evading Nour and other refugee children. Donors need to move beyond funding mere enrollments to invest in evidence-based, scalable initiatives and programs that focus on both students and teachers, and effectively support national and refugee students’ academic learning and their successful transitions through school.