Education of girls is a major focus for many organisations. We also believe in educating girls, but it is because we believe in educating children.
If we find girls who need help, then we help girls. If we find boys who need help then we help boys. Equality of opportunity is absolutely fundamental to what we are trying to give the children and so our commitment has to be to both boys and to girls.
However, it is certainly the case that some of the refugee girls do have extra barriers and needs. And so we recognise that sometimes they need extra teacher help from us. We found this with some of the refugee girls in France, as they seemed to have had less opportunity to study subjects like Maths, than the boys. We are finding the same pattern here in Greece.
When carrying out initial assessments we usually start Maths assessments with very basic sums. These consist of calculations which can be done on fingers, if necessary, such as 2+3= and 5-2=. The proportion of teenage girls initially struggling with maths questions like this far outweighed the proportion of boys.
It isn’t because the girls are less able or less caring about education. On the contrary they evidence very sophisticated thinking and are so eager for school that they wait outside the camp to greet teachers and escort them in to lessons.
The problem is that many of the refugee children have missed enormous amounts of education and this seems to have impacted disproportionately harshly on some of the refugee girls. Some of the 15 year old girls do not seem to have had the opportunity to cover concepts which 5 year olds would normally cover in European schools. They are 10 years behind in aspects of their education. We will do our best to help the girls catch-up and they themselves are keen to do so. In fact they are so passionate about it that we have seen girls intensively catching up concepts in a week, which we would normally expect children to acquire over a month in mainstream education.
The children do extremely well to concentrate and work so hard. They don’t have chairs, desks and comfortable classrooms. They are working outside in very unpleasant conditions. They sit on sack material on uncomfortable rocky ground, trying to get shade from our one solitary tree. The whiteboard is hung from a wobbly fence. They are leaning on bolders with plagues of mosquitos and flies constantly hovering around eyes and mouths. Our only relief from the harsh sun this week was the torrential downpour with thunder and lightening.
When the deluge started we took shelter under an external staircase of a building. We worked as long as we could and only finally ended teaching at the point where none of the pens would work any longer because everything was too wet. These are the conditions in which the older refugee children are catching-up their missed learning. Under the circumstances it is astonishing that they are making some real and commendable educational progress. Would that they had had the opportunity earlier!
We have made some positive progress this week in finding parents to come and help us as teaching assistants. Initially it is the mothers who have come forward. They aren’t always available as they have their own families to care for. They don’t have much English. Teachers haven’t got much, if any, (Kurmanji) Kurdish. But the assistants still provide extremely useful help in school. They copy what the teachers do, explaining in Kurdish when the children are stuck and checking that the children have grasped concepts in Kurdish. It works surprisingly well under the circumstances.
The young mothers do not yet always have confidence in front of groups of the children. This is also the case when English teaching assistants start in English schools. It is partly about the natural nervousness which comes from speaking and doing things in front of others.
But it is also because as women the mothers' own education has sometimes suffered. They too have gaps in their learning, just like the teenage girls. Before teaching a new concept to the children, we therefore run through it with the teaching assistants first so that they are confident that they can do it. We ended up delaying the teaching of division to the children for a day, whilst a couple of the teaching assistants built their own confidence with it. Once they had done that then they were able to translate and supervise the children answering division questions in both English and Kurdish characters.
Our teaching assistants really came into their own when we did a lesson on telling the time. We taught the time in English and the children picked up the concepts relatively quickly. We then asked the children to tell us what the time was on our practice clocks in Kurdish. Our teaching assistants led that part of the lesson and it rapidly became apparent that more than two thirds of the 11+ children could not tell the time consistently in Kurdish. We broke the group down and the mothers then spent the rest of the lesson drilling the children in the Kurdish for telling the time.
Ironically the children were not particularly keen to learn these concepts in Kurdish. What they value is education in English. However, as educators we consider it irresponsible to drive their education forward in an acquired language, without doing our best to make sure that they understand as much as possible in their own first language.