One of the many casualties of crises is education. Natural disasters, wars and protracted conflict are disrupting children’s access to schools and contributing to higher drop-out and lower completion rates. Schools can also be destroyed or taken over by military groups, and prolonged conflicts can leave them without trained teachers, resources or funding. In 2015, 80 million children and young people’s education was affected by humanitarian emergencies and protracted crises. 

The EU is one of the largest global development donors and humanitarian actors for education in crisis environments. 60% of the EU's bilateral aid for education (representing €1.6 billion) goes to fragile and conflict-affected states. The EU is the biggest donor (with €375 million) to the Global Partnership for Education, which increasingly focuses on education in fragile and crisis environments. The EU is also the first humanitarian donor to dedicate 4% of its humanitarian aid budget to education in emergencies (through the Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, or DG ECHO).

Priorities within the EU’s development assistance on education are agreed with national governments, and differ from country to country. Three elements are however crucial in crisis-affected environments: catch-up programmes to help children re-enter education after disruption; support for girls and vulnerable groups which are less likely to attend school; and training and support for teachers.


The average conflict in least developed countries lasts 12 years, according to UNESCO, but they can extend over decades – denying generations of children an education.

Many years of civil war in South Sudan have fragmented an already patchy education system. Today only 27% of adults in South Sudan can read and write. Only 10% of children complete primary school, and over a million primary school-aged children do not attend lessons at all.

Helping children to re-enter school after conflict is a crucial part of the country’s education plan supported by the EU. “It’s far from easy, but there are various means to help children re-enter school,” said James Lawrie, Senior Education Adviser at Save the Children. “One is an Accelerated Education Programme, which is typically for children aged 12-18, and means they can catch up quickly following a syllabus in line with the national curriculum.”

Another example is a four year programme which packs in eight years’ of primary education. “Children are able to read and write by the end of it - it’s an exceptional means to support children who have dropped out,” said Lawrie.

Such programmes require commitment and coordination from the government, both at national and local level, and from donors and NGOs. “South Sudan is an extreme example of a country where we need to do better work to help teachers, to make sure they’re paid, to support them in delivering an education which helps children learn,” said Lawrie. “It’s far from easy but it’s not impossible.”


On top of logistical barriers to education, children in crisis environments often face financial and cultural obstacles to attending school. Girls are especially affected. They are less likely to attend school than boys, and are more likely to drop out early.

“Girls are one of the most vulnerable groups,” said Mohamed Sabul, Programme Manager, Education and Education Systems, in the EU Delegation to Somalia. When money is tight, “parents prioritize boys’ education over girls’.”

In Somalia, the literacy rate for women is around 25%, half of that for men. The country on the Horn of Africa is emerging from two decades of civil war, during which three-quarters of public schools were closed or destroyed. In 2011, only 37% of girls were enrolled in primary school, compared to 51% of boys.



Encouraging girls’ participation is a central aspect of the EU’s assistance to Somalia’s Ministries of Education. (There are state-level Ministries of Education in addition to the Federal Ministry of Education, which was attacked by terrorists last year.) One way the EU supports girls’ education is by providing scholarships for girls from poor backgrounds. Covering school fees, books, uniform and a sanitary kit to reduce absenteeism, the scholarships have helped nearly 500 girls to complete at least one level of education since 2010.

Another means of retaining more girls in schools is to re-design school environments to cater to their needs. “Culturally, girls feel shy to walk to an exposed toilet when the boys are looking,” said Sabul. “Many girls go home just to go to the toilet, and don’t come back.”

Sixty schools have responded by building girl-friendly facilities – “special buildings were girls are able to meet, discuss issues that affect their education, and social issues like early marriage and FGM. It’s a space where they can help each other academically, a kind of library. And within the same facility there are toilets - so boys won’t know if girls are going there to read, discuss, or go to the toilet. And that has built tremendously the confidence of girls.”

Focus on Teachers

Getting into school is good; staying in school is better. But it is not enough: learning is the real right. While it is critically important that all children complete their education, it is equally vital that they receive quality teaching and can learn to the fullest extent possible while at school. This concern, shared by all countries trying to improve education systems, is more challenging in crisis situations.

Well-trained, motivated and supported teachers are pivotal to children’s learning. Yet, “In the world’s poorest and most fragile contexts where the need for quality teaching is greatest, professional development for teachers is episodic and limited, and support or follow-up for teachers is almost non-existent,” said Lawrie.

Ghada Hameed, Programme Manager at the EU Delegation to Iraq, has found this to be true during two years’ experience in Baghdad. “The lack of experienced teachers is something seriously affecting the quality of learning,” she said.



Iraq’s prolonged conflict has created a brain drain of teachers, and drawn inexperienced community members into classrooms to fill the gaps. The challenge of teaching without training is compounded by what many children have gone through. “With the crisis of IDPs [internally displaced persons] and refugees, many teachers do not have the experience in teaching children who suffered from conflict,” said Hameed.

Teachers’ involvement in policy discussion and implementation is essential to promote understanding, ownership and support for change. The EU supports the development of sound policy frameworks for teacher management and professional development.

A 2014 EU programme provides €23 million to support capacity building in Iraq’s primary and secondary schools. The programme has two components: one focusses on quality of learning, including teacher training, curricula review, and supporting a counselling system. The second component gives technical assistance to the Ministry of Education, including on planning and budgeting.

“The crisis never ends, it’s going on and on, and we have to adapt,” said Hameed. “The situation is changing every day, and the more flexible we can be, the more results we can achieve.”

7 Steps Towards Quality Teaching

In a global consultation in 2015, several authors and education experts put forward recommendations to improve the quality of teaching and learning in fragile contexts. These are gathered into seven key elements, which are equally valid for more stable countries:



  1. Focus on teachers in fragile contexts – as professionals, learners and individuals
  2. Develop, apply, measure and institutionalize standards for teacher professional development
  3. Create professional development opportunities that promote teacher collaboration
  4. Provide teachers with ongoing support
  5. Invest in high-quality teacher educators
  6. Build instructional leadership at all levels of the educational system
  7. Use ICT to provide access to content, professional development and professional learning communities

Click here to read the complete guide, ‘Where It’s Needed Most: Quality Professional Development for All Teachers’ (Mary Burns and James Lawrie).

Lawrie’s hope is that this guide will help donors to direct their support for education where it is needed most. The impact will go far beyond the classroom, affecting democracy, demographics, the environment and economy. “Education can take place in all circumstances, and it is the right of every child,” said Lawrie. It’s also the key to peace and development.


Education and Development

Higher Education

Further Reading & Viewing

The Cost of Conflict in Syria: Education is a priority in the EU's response to the Syria crisis and a main component of the regional Madad Trust Fund. €544 million has been mobilised so far to support education. 

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Stephanie Schumacher,Stijn de Lameillieure and Katya Steurer from DEVCO, with support from the Coordination Team.

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

Register or log in to comment

More actions