PlanED Episode 3: How educational planning can help refugee learners thrive


Educational planning can help bridge the gap in access to quality education for refugee students. In this episode, IIEP-UNESCO's Alexandra Waldhorn looks at the role of planning in providing inclusive and equitable education for displaced children and youth across the globe.

Becky Telford, the Chief of Education for the UN Refugee Agency, explains how educational opportunities diminish as displaced children grow older and why an equitable distribution of resources is critical. IIEP programme specialist Thalia Seguin breaks down the different dimensions of inclusion, including the role of data. And Damarice Otieno from Kenya’s Department of Refugee Services shares not only the challenges but a path forward.

Full Script:

Becky Telford: 2022 was a huge year in terms of displacement. And more than 100 million people in total were forced to be displaced… that total is equivalent to about 1% of the global population.

Alexandra Waldhorn: Becky Telford is the Chief of Education for the UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency. Refugees and other forcibly displaced people are forced to flee their homes because of conflict, violence, disasters, including those from climate change or other major disruptions - or sometimes out of fear of persecution.

Becky Telford: There's such a significant population of children amongst the displaced population globally. So for refugees specifically, which is those displaced outside of their own country borders, about half of them, 48 percent, are still out of school, there's very low enrollment. By the time you get to secondary school, only 37 percent of refugees are actually enrolled.


Alexandra Waldhorn: This is Plan-ED, from UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), where we take you inside education systems to learn about the policies and strategies helping to create a more equitable and sustainable future in and through education. I’m Alexandra Waldhorn.

IIEP’s mission is to strengthen the capacities of ministries of education to plan and manage their systems – and addressing the education needs of refugee children is key in a world where people are increasingly being displaced. The goal is inclusion: that refugee students are fully included in national education systems, and are treated the same way and given the same opportunities as students from the host country. But that can be difficult for countries that are already having trouble providing quality education for their own populations.

Becky Telford: Lots of countries struggle already with education, and since around 85 percent of refugees are hosted in lower- and lower-middle-income countries, putting pressure on systems which are already struggling can be a huge issue. So very often there just aren't enough teachers and classrooms. 

Alexandra Waldhorn: A lack of teachers and overcrowded classrooms are just some of the challenges facing countries trying to include refugee students in their education systems. IIEP offers support to ministries of education to help strengthen their capacities to plan for and manage the integration of refugees - offering both technical cooperation and training, as well as research. I spoke with IIEP associate program specialist Thaila Seguin, who explains how this is done.

Thalia Seguin: Planning for inclusion can be broken down into issues related to access, quality, and management of national education systems. To ensure access to education and sustained political commitment, legal frameworks and institutional arrangements need to be put in place and carefully planned. Issues related to the language of instruction and curriculum are key to ensuring the provision of quality education for displaced populations. The teaching force must also be carefully planned for, to ensure that teachers are effectively recruited and deployed and that they can deliver lessons in safe and secure teaching and learning environments to foster motivation and well-being. They also need to have access to professional development opportunities. Finally, understanding the needs and challenges faced by host and refugee communities, both for learners and teachers alike, requires having access to timely and relevant data and information. And, of course, ensuring that there is sufficient funding to cover these needs is another key management issue that planners must think through.

Alexandra Waldhorn: What elements do ministries need to consider when planning for greater inclusion of refugees in their national education systems?

Thalia Seguin: Great question. In many contexts, inclusion means a large-scale shift from parallel education systems for refugees with UNHCR and partners in the lead, toward an integrated, government-led approach to education service delivery for refugees. As a result, inclusion requires strengthening existing national education systems to enable them to support refugee learners… and this fosters mutual benefits for both refugees and host communities.

Alexandra Waldhorn: UNHCR agrees that local ministries of education systems must take the lead and include refugee and displaced students into their general systems. Here’s UNHCR’s Chief of education Becky Telford again.

Becky Telford: There are focuses on the inclusion agenda around social cohesion- bringing refugees into the communities in which they find themselves and making sure that support to refugees also can potentially benefit host communities. Bringing children together in that way also builds social cohesion just from a community perspective, so having people be able to understand who are refugees and have those- have those refugees feel welcome. But critically, it also links to accreditation and certification pathways. So it's not just about having access to, you know, to be able to learn something. It's also about really being able to build out a pathway to a different future.

Alexandra Waldhorn: Can you tell us why is planning for the inclusion of refugees in national education systems then therefore very important?

Becky Telford: Planning is really key because including refugees means ensuring that those systems are ready and ensuring that they-re robust- that they're potentially prepared to work when there is an emergency or an influx. Looking at the contribution that makes, then to the resilience of the whole system and how that trickles down to being able to support teachers, to being able to support children and youth and- and that cohesion at a social level is- is really critical. There's also an aspect of feasibility and whilst we are, you know very strongly advocating for inclusion in national systems, we also recognize that where systems are already struggling, being able to have arguments and have clear requests on additional human and financial resources is really critical, and that's part of the relationship between, kind of, humanitarian and development partners and the relationship between host government ministries, for example, and the international community. So looking at the equitable distribution of resources, making sure that host communities aren't struggling because of a refugee influx, but that we're creating something that- that really improves access to education for all.

Alexandra Waldhorn: Planning, however, involves data: Locating and identifying the learners, and assessing their needs. I asked IIEP’s Thaila Seguin about data needs and the challenges.

Thalia Seguin: So, let’s imagine we are planners in a host country receiving a large influx of refugees. As a planner, one of the first tasks that I would take on would be to establish an evidence-based understanding of the needs and challenges faced by host and refugee communities. At the same time, the timeliness and accuracy of data, as the motivations behind data collection, can skew results. For example, inflation of numbers may lead to increased funding allocations. Data also needs to be available within a reasonable period to be relevant, given the fluidity of displaced populations. There can also be significant protection concerns with collecting data of forcibly displaced populations.

Alexandra Waldhorn: Exactly. And so this also raises questions on how data is actually used.

Thalia Seguin: Yes. So once information is collected, how it is analysed and used varies. When multiple education service providers are involved, this often leads to data fragmentation across systems. And all too often, indicators are mostly reflective of the number of learners reached, and not necessarily of the quality of interventions- meaning that actual learning achievements may remain largely unmonitored. These challenges point to the need to strengthen existing education management information systems with tools that can be deployed quickly and frequently and that include disaggregated data on refugee populations, aligned with the data that is collected for national populations.


Alexandra Waldhorn: Kenya hosts over half a million refugees and asylum seekers – most coming from Somalia. Over half of them are under the age of 17. Kenya strives to offer the same education services in refugee camps and settlements, as in the public system. But Damarice Otieno, Head of Documentation for Kenya’s Department of Refugee Services, told Thalia that this is still a work in progress. Efforts have been made to include refugees in the national education identification system, for example. And they follow the national education curriculum and sit for national exams. But a major problem is a lack of teachers.

Damarice Otieno: We have so many learners in the refugee schools, in the camps, and the teacher-to-learner ratio is very high. You find a classroom of 100 students being mined by one teacher, and most of these teachers are not qualified. So the children may be getting education, but, you know, you question the quality or the relevance of that education. So without a clear policy and guidelines on how we can recruit teachers to be able to teach in the refugee schools, that has impacted greatly on learning. The other issue that is, there is also, in terms of the documentation requirement for refugee learners. So we have an online system for all learners in Kenyan schools. So a child who is joining school in grade one, or is going to sit for national examinations, must have a birth certificate. And most of the refugee children who are not born in Kenya do not have birth certificates. Another issue is overcrowding in classes. So for us as a department, those are the major challenges that we face. So, and these are policy issues that are- if they are addressed, then some of the problems that the refugees experience may actually be a thing of the past, and the initiative that the ministry has taken to work towards a national policy on including refugees, may go a long way in alleviating some of these problems that refugee learners’ experience. 

Alexandra Waldhorn: Damarice also shared innovative strategies to help ensure learners can thrive no matter where they are.

Damarice Otieno: So some of the innovative ways that we are using to ensure that… displaced learners able to thrive no matter what, is ensuring that uh- a big percentage of the children, who are school going age go to school. So even as we talk about the teacher-learner issue, we still encourage all children to be in school, even in the camp city. They may not be getting the quality education that we envisioned for them, but the school environment provides a safe haven for many of the refugee children. And the other one is, we've worked with the Ministry of Education in terms of, I talked about the requirement for a birth certificate. We have agreed in principle with the Minister of Education, that this document of identity that is given to asylum seekers and refugees on arrival can be used to register them, to be able to sit for national examinations, to enroll the children in schools. Is this keeping up with the high number of students? We have so many students arriving every day but we are not keeping up with the pace, but we are trying as much as possible to ensure that all new arrivals or new learners are able to be enrolled in school, even when they do not have the right requirements.


Alexandra Waldhorn: IIEP has been researching the teaching workforce in refugee settings in Kenya to come up with recommendations to help strengthen effective teacher management. It has also helped lay out the costs for developing an action plan for including refugees in the national education system. Thalia explained that IIEP provides technical support and training, as well as research, for governments looking to advance the inclusion of refugees in education.

Thalia Seguin: Our technical support to ministries of education includes costed action plans for the educational inclusion of refugees in national systems. In the area of training, for example, we developed a training course for UNHCR and ministry representatives to develop their skills and capacities to plan for the inclusion of refugees in national education systems. And supporting teachers in refugee settings is also an important area of focus for IIEP. We carried out research with Education Development Trust on teacher management in Ethiopia, Jordan, Kenya, and Uganda. This research includes recommendations to help guide decision-making and foster better teaching and learning environments for all. 

Alexandra Waldhorn: So how is IIEP’s work making an impact so far?

Thalia Seguin: IIEP has been working in diverse contexts to support ministries as they move toward greater inclusion of refugees in national education systems. This requires joining up planning processes. Governments and their partners need to be able to know both the number of refugee and asylum-seeking children in their country, as well as their education needs. Joint planning across ministries of education and refugee organisations can contribute to more equitable resource allocation. Bringing together ministries and refugee organizations is also a way to foster social cohesion. It can raise awareness about challenges that both populations are facing and can lead to collective problem-solving and create innovative solutions.

Alexandra Waldhorn: So you mentioned costed action plans also, I would love to hear more about what this entails.

Thalia Seguin: Absolutely. So this is a capacity development process, which involves working again with national governments and refugee organizations, including civil society organizations to jointly prioritize strategies, programmes, and activities to improve education service delivery for all learners, determine the financial cost for the inclusion of refugees in a national education system, and really lay the foundation for fundraising efforts to include refugees in national education systems. To date, IIEP has supported costed plan development in Kenya. And now, we are working with Mauritania to develop a costed plan, in line with the country’s forthcoming education sector plan.


Alexandra Waldhorn: That was IIEP associate program specialist Thaila Seguin.

This is Plan-Ed – a podcast from IIEP-UNESCO.

Produced by Alexandra Waldhorn, edited and mixed by Sarah Elzas. 

Music by Robert Meunier

You can find more information about the rights to education for forcibly displaced persons on our website: 

Join us next time for more insight into the policies and strategies helping to create a more equitable and sustainable future, in and through education.