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Report

Impact of war on Syrian children’s learning: testing shows gaps in literacy and maths skills

Executive summary

Throughout the Syrian conflict, children’s education has been disrupted by displacement and insecurity. 5.8 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 in Syria require education assistance. Approximately 1.75 million children and youth are already out of school, with many more at risk of dropping out. More than 150,000 education personnel have left the formal system, and a third of schools are damaged or unusable.

The IRC ensures students affected by the crisis have access to education by supporting five schools in Northern Syria. Despite concerns and anecdotal information about children’s ability to learn in such challenging conditions, little information exists about children’s learning levels inside Syria. Seeking to understand the situation in Syria and to design education programmes to meet student needs as effectively as possible, the IRC has collected data that provide critical insight into reading and maths levels of internally displaced and host community children. In addition to contributing to available information about learning, this data collection process demonstrates the feasibility of measuring learning even in a difficult context.

The IRC began with an Annual State of Education (ASER) pilot with 122 students (96 boys and 26 girls) in two schools in Idleb in December 2015. Of children assessed in Years 5, 6, and 7, 79% could not read at a Year 3 level, and 71% could not complete a Year 3 level maths problem.

The IRC subsequently undertook a larger ASER assessment in November 2016 in five IRC-supported schools in the Idleb Governorate. The sample covered 2,846 children (1,255 boys and 1,591 girls). The results from this second assessment underline sizeable challenges related to learning in assessed schools and point to the need for continued research and support for quality education to ensure children are in school, safe, and learning. 

Findings

  • 59% of Year 7s, 52% of Year 8s, and 35% of Year 9s could not read a simple, 7-10 sentence story—the equivalent of Year 3 reading skills.
  • 64% of Year 7s, 63% of Year 8s, and 46% of Year 9s could not solve a subtraction problem—the equivalent of Year 3 maths skills.
  • Girls frequently outperformed boys, and the differences are most striking in higher years. A much larger percentage of Year 8 and Year 9 girls could read at a Year 3 level than Year 8 and Year 9 boys (59% of girls in Year 8, compared to 23% of boys and 72% of girls in Year 9, compared to 38% of boys). Boys’ scores are dramatically lower in Year 8 (19% able to subtract, compared to 45% of girls) and Year 9 (35% able to subtract, compared to 60% of girls).

Recommendations for donors

  • Require the programmes you fund to seek education outcomes (not simply outputs), and invest in building actors’ capacity to collect and share data on outcomes.
  • Direct your resources to programmes that seek reading, maths, social-emotional, safety and access outcomes. Given what we know from education research about how outcomes influence each other, ensure that programmes include all of these outcomes, not one or two of them.
  • Invest in programmes that are based on the best available evidence about how to achieve these outcomes.
  • Dedicate 10% of all funding towards research and learning that will provide the sector with a strong evidence base on the best ways to achieve outcomes. Investments should go towards generating evidence on what works, where, for whom, under what conditions and at what cost.

Background and IRC intervention

Children in Syria face numerous challenges, including limited access to education. The 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview notes that 1.75 million children and youth are already out of school, with significantly more at risk of dropout, and 5.8 million in need of education assistance. There are notable gaps in infrastructure and human resources; one-third of schools are unusable or damaged, and over 150,000 personnel have left the formal system.

The IRC started its education and child protection programmes in Northern Syria in 2013 in informal settlements. Today, the IRC supports more than 3,500 students through five off-camp schools. Through these schools, the IRC implements its Healing Classrooms approach, which provides psychosocial, social, and educational activities to boys and girls, training to teachers, and parenting skills training to parents, through structured and age-appropriate activities that prioritise children’s safety, security, learning, and psychosocial well-being.

The IRC began its intervention in the schools discussed in this report in June 2015 by providing support to three pre-existing schools for host and displaced school-aged children. The IRC subsequently expanded to support two additional schools in 2016.

The impact of crisis on children

Crisis and conflict have direct and profound effects on children’s physical safety, well-being and ability to learn. Neuroscience has shown that children who experience the types of adversity common in crisis settings can have a physiological “toxic stress” response that inhibits their brain development, impacting their physical and mental health, behaviour, relationships and ability to learn.

Crisis and conflict have direct and profound effects on children’s physical safety, well-being and ability to learn.

But this can be reduced or reversed. Children are remarkably resilient. When provided with the right support, such as safe, quality educational opportunities, the negative effects of hardship and stress are mitigated and children can heal, grow, learn and thrive.

The IRC’s Healing Classrooms approach—built on 30 years of education in emergencies experience and a decade of research and field testing—offers children a safe, predicable place to learn and cope with the consequences of conflict. 

Methods and measures

For the data discussed in this report, the IRC used the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) reading and maths tools. In 2005, these tools were launched to document the level of children’s learning on a national scale in India.5 The ASER reading and maths tools are easy and quick to administer, and provide basic information about learning outcomes. Assessors assign the child a score based on the highest level he or she can comfortably pass, on a scale from 0 to 4, in reading and maths. Level 4 is approximately equivalent to the end of Year 3 in the reading and maths curriculum, based on levelling undertaken by the IRC team.

Due to significant gaps in data and information on learning inside Syria, IRC undertook the ASER assessment in order to understand reading and maths levels among supported students in Years 2-9. ASER was chosen as the measure because the tools are user-friendly and allow for a quick snapshot of early year reading and maths abilities.

The ASER assessment was conducted in 5 IRC-supported schools in Idleb, targeting students in Years 2-9. In each school, IRC education team members trained teachers, who subsequently conducted the assessment using paper forms over a two-day period in November 2016. After forms were collected, data were entered electronically by the IRC team. Although security challenges and children’s obligations at home made it impossible to reach all students, the final number assessed (2,846) represents approximately 73% of the children enrolled in Years 2-9 at the time.

Findings

ASER reading results

  • In general, scores improve in higher years, but there are still wide ranges within years, and low scores even for some older students. In Year 9, 11% of students (10% of girls, and 12% of boys) scored a 0 or a 1, meaning they could not identify words.
  • Since ASER tests for Year 3 level skills, ideally 100% of all students in Year 4 or above should earn the highest score. In this assessment, only 14% of Year 4s (18% of girls, and 10% of boys) did. Scores point to concerning gaps in learning even in higher years; 59% of Year 7s, 52% of Year 8s, and 35% of Year 9s could not read a story—the equivalent of a Year 3 level of reading.
  • A much larger percentage of girls than boys achieved the highest score in reading in Year 8 (59% of girls, compared to 23% of boys) and Year 9 (72% of girls, compared to 38% of boys).

ASER maths results

  • As with reading, scores generally improve in higher years, but there are still wide ranges within years, as well as low scores for some students in all years. In Year 9, 9% of students (8% of girls, and 12% of boys) scored a 0 or a 1, meaning they could not identify double-digit numbers.
  • Since ASER tests for Year 3 level skills, ideally 100% of students in Year 4 and above should earn the highest score. In this assessment, only 15% of students (16% of girls and 15% of boys) did. Gaps in foundational maths abilities in higher years are also apparent. 64% of Year 7s, 63% of Year 8s, and 46% of Year 9s could not solve a subtraction problem—the equivalent of Year 3 level maths skills.
  • A higher percentage of girls than boys achieved the highest score in every year other than Year 7. Boys’ scores are dramatically lower in Year 8 (19% able to subtract, compared to 45% of girls) and Year 9 (35% able to subtract, compared to 60% of girls). 

Reading and maths comparison

Maths scores are higher on average than reading scores in the early years, which could be linked to students’ number use in daily life (currency, telling time, etc.). Year 7 sees nearly equal average scores for reading and maths, with stronger average reading scores emerging in Years 8 and 9.

Girls’ average scores are higher than boys’ in both reading and maths in every year but Year 7.

Average scores in both reading and maths are low for both boys and girls, pointing to the need for additional programming to support foundational skills.

Recommendations for donors:

Require the programmes you fund to seek education outcomes (not simply outputs), and invest in building actors’ capacity to collect and share data on outcomes.

Direct your resources to programmes that seek reading, maths, social-emotional, safety, and access outcomes. Given what we know from education research about how outcomes influence each other, ensure that programmes include all of these outcomes, not one or two of them.

Invest in programmes that are based on the best available evidence about how to achieve these outcomes.

Dedicate 10% of all funding towards research and learning that will provide the sector with a strong evidence base on the best ways to achieve outcomes. Investments should go towards generating evidence on what works, where, for whom, under what conditions and at what cost.

Recommendations for the IRC:

Continue to collect and share basic learning data to advocate for investments going to what is needed.

Share ASER findings at the local level, to expand the information available and to encourage parents to focus on their children’s learning and attendance.

Disseminate the findings within the education and humanitarian communities to raise awareness of the low learning levels in Syria.

Train other actors operating in Northern Syria in the use of ASER to support additional data collection and information about learning.

Prioritise remedial programming intended to build these foundational skills.

Implement social-emotional learning programming to help students develop skills for success in school and in life.

Carry out an endline at the end of this academic year to assess progress.

Available documents & links