When conflict meets the classroom: How does war affect education?

September 4, 2022
Photo by Pamela Tulizo

Written shortly after the end of World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to education without discrimination. However, that right is easily violated, or simply ignored, in a humanitarian crisis. This is especially true for countries in conflict. The loss of education due to conflict can have catastrophic outcomes, especially since education is key to fostering sustainable peace. Here’s what you need to know.  

How war affects education: Facts and figures

  • Children in conflict-affected countries are 30% less likely to complete primary school than those in non-conflict affected countries
  • Only 50% of refugee children have access to primary education, compared with a global level of over 90%
  • In 2017, 64 million primary aged children were not in school, accounting for 9% of the global primary aged population. Children in poor countries and those affected by fragility and conflict are most likely to be out-of-school.
  • A gap in education due to emergencies will cost future generations the benefits of health, income, equality, and psychological well-being that education provides. This fuels the cycle of poverty
  • The longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return

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Attacks on schools have increased

There are specific international humanitarian laws and rules of war that prohibit attacks on schools and require combatants to limit the impact of violence on children. Despite this, going to school has become an even more dangerous endeavor in the last few years. In 2020, UNICEF counted 535 verified attacks on schools. Despite the pandemic-related closures that year, this was a 17% increase compared to attacks in 2019. 

More broadly, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack records over 5,000 reported attacks on education and military use of schools and universities between 2020 and 2021. These incidents harmed over 9,000 students and educators across 85 countries. Their 2022 “Education Under Attack” report concluded that, on average, six attacks on education took place every day. Over 400 attacks occurred on schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.

Women and girls are sometimes the target of education-related attacks

There are specific international humanitarian laws and rules of war that prohibit attacks on schools and require combatants to limit the risk of injury and death to civilians. However, these laws and regulations are often ignored. Education Under Attack notes that girls and women have been attacked at school as a result of conflict in at least 11 countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. EUA also reports the use of explosive weapons in attacks on schools in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen (among others). 

Even if they aren’t being attacked, girls may be more likely to lose out on an education due to conflict, either kept home for their own safety — especially on commutes to and from the classroom — or forced into child marriage as a means of coping with the economic impacts conflict has on vulnerable families. 

High school student actors at the Lycée de Bossembélé, Central African Republic. On 9 December 2021, Concern CAR successfully held an event in Bossembélé to celebrate the 16 Days of Activism. Around 200 students, 30 Concern staff and 20 community leaders and local authorities attended. (Photo: Concern Worldwide)

Boys’ education is also under threat in wartime

In Shattered Lives, Concern’s 2017 study on the effects of the conflict in Syria, all participants interviewed agreed that women and children were most at-risk to the impact of war. Girls face the prospect of abuse, harassment, and forced marriage, which often has a direct result on their education. 

However, young men and boys also face similar threats to education. Young men in their late (or even early) teens often face the existential threat of being drafted or forcibly conscripted either into a national army or rebel group. Many families in Syria sent their sons away to avoid this fate, with many rural villages completely devoid of men ages 18 to 35 due to recruitment, displacement, or death.

Younger boys aren’t safe, either. The near-universal poverty rates in Syria have led to many children dropping out of school and turning to hazardous work, such as selling fuel, in order to support themselves and their families. Many boys collect waste to sell as scrap metal, leaving themselves more exposed to landmines and other unexploded devices. Many boys are also enlisted, either voluntarily or through force. During Sierra Leone’s Civil War (1991-2002), approximately 14,000 child soldiers fought on both sides. At one point, 25% of the national army consisted of children ages 8 to 14.

Syrian refugee Mustafa*, who initially balanced his studies with a job bussing café tables, took part in Concern’s ECHO-funded Children of Peace programme supporting education for refugees in Türkiye. (Photo: Fionnagh Nally / Concern Worldwide)

Psychological well-being is also under attack when conflict strikes

A recent column published by the Centre for Economic Policy and Research notes that “one aspect that has received little attention so far is the effect of conflict on academic achievement.” The CEPR points specifically to high school students in this case, but in reality, the reasons behind war’s effect on educational attainment applies to all children. 

One of the key reasons for this is that children feel the effects of war acutely. The younger they are, the fewer mechanisms they have to express the emotional reactions that are a normal part of conflict like fear, anxiety, and depression. A lack of psychosocial support has an effect on how well students will perform in school, especially those who need additional learning support even in a non-conflict setting. 

This is also where education can play a key part in reducing the impact of war on children’s lives. Conflict-sensitive education, which is (as the name suggests) educational programs that adapt curricula and learning goals to the realities of war, can help children keep up with building important life skills and maintain a sense of normalcy. Even if they aren’t learning grammar or multiplication tables at this time, it provides them with a foundation of support and well-being to continue their full course of education when the time is right. 

Refugee children at school in Lebanon

Concern Worldwide education officer, Nour Al Hajal, with a group of children attending a non-formal education program that focuses on early childhood education in northern Lebanon.

It’s hard for children to come back from even a few months of missed classes

Returning to the classroom after an extended time away from it isn’t a one-to-one ratio. Children can’t make up for a month’s worth of missed learning within a month. As we’ve seen with school shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it takes time to adjust and readjust to new settings and new normals, especially when it comes to productivity and exercises that require our cognitive skills. 

Unfortunately, most school systems in countries and communities affected by conflict don’t have the resources to accommodate this need for extra time, which can leave children falling increasingly behind on learning benchmarks. 

“I won’t go back to school. I have lost my will now after missing it for two years.” — Samer*, Syrian student (in 2013)

After the war has ended, many children don’t come back

When we met 16-year-old Syrian boy Samer* in 2013, he was 16 and told us: “I won’t go back to school. I have lost my will now after missing it for two years.” Even if he had been able to get back into the classroom sooner, he felt he would be too behind on classes and that the education system would take much longer to get back up to full speed. “For my generation and me, the future is not clear.”

Since we last spoke with Samer, another generation of Syrians has come of age without securing their basic right to a quality education. Samer would be 25 now, and while his decision was made at a critical age, when college is close by and many students set themselves up on a career trajectory, interruptions to education are equally critical for younger children. Losing out on the first few years of a primary education leaves many children feeling hopelessly behind. Without the right support, many fail to catch up or learn at their full potential.  

A Concern-supported school, Tcharaw, Sila, Chad. (Photo: Pierre Maget / Concern Worldwide)

Conflicts are becoming increasingly more protracted, which changes the way we need to approach education in war zones

Many conflicts are now a decade — if not decades — old: Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria… The longer a crisis like conflict goes on, the more complex an emergency the situation becomes. Many countries that have transitioned into peacetime struggle to rebuild infrastructure, and education is often low on the list of priorities next to issues like sanitation, roads, and running water. 

Meanwhile, we are at the peak of a conflict-related global refugee crisis with the average length of displacement times for refugees and IDPs growing from months to years to generations. We can no longer see these humanitarian emergencies as short-term events, and this means we have to change our approach to education. Part of this includes bridging the gap between education’s place in short-term humanitarian aid and long-term development work, to ensure that students (many of whom may spend their entire primary education in displacement) see the same educational outcomes as their peers in non-conflict settings. 

Education is key to mitigating current conflict and preventing future conflict

Education can be transformative, providing children with access to information and facilitating the development of skills to challenge, analyze, and communicate that information. This is a key component in fostering a lasting peace. The skills that education develops can spur individuals and societies to challenge oppression, tyranny, and inequality. In turn, they can create space for dialogue, democracy, and transformation. The right education is one of the best conflict mitigation strategies available to any society. (Conversely, when governments deliver education in ways that foster intolerance, prejudice, and injustice, this can exacerbate wider tensions and make armed conflict more likely.)

What’s more, the real benefits of an education are linked to the next generation. A parent’s education is linked to improvements in: 

  • Their children’s cognitive development
  • The health outcomes of all family members
  • Infant and maternal mortality rates (due to children getting married and having their first child at older ages)
  • Resilience to cope with emergencies and shocks
  • Criminal activity reduction
  • Democratic systems

These intergenerational benefits of a quality, equitable education require long-term sustained investment, however. This can be threatened by the realities of war. Investing in response early on when conflict breaks out means we can reduce needs and vulnerabilities in the future. 

Education and conflict: Concern’s approach

Concern’s work in education aims to improve the lives of children living in extreme poverty and vulnerability by increasing access to high-quality primary education and supporting overall child well-being. One of our specialties in this area is education in emergencies, including conflict. Understanding the effects that war can have on an education, we focus on supporting children in fragile and crisis situations. Our conflict-sensitive approach to education includes programs like: 

  • Establishing Temporary Learning Spaces (TLS) for children displaced by conflict
  • Equipping teachers with the skills to support children affected by crisis, conflict, and displacement
  • Developing informal accelerated learning programs, including those based on literacy, numeracy, and psychosocial support
  • Supporting community-led schools
  • Working with governments to reestablish and rebuild national education systems once peace has been reached

Concern also supports community engagement in school management, empowering parents and community leaders to have a role in decision-making at the local school level and engaging caretakers to understand what their children are going through during emergency situations and how to best support them in difficult times. Many of our community-led projects address factors that restrict access and demand for education, particularly among poor and vulnerable children and girls.