Education is increasingly data driven in the UK. We have inspections, reports, league tables, audits and internal data constantly flowing within schools. It can feel at times as if we are drowning in data. However good teachers are constantly striving to improve and they know that it is reliable data which is the key to improvement. Without data we have no proper sense of how we are doing, and without a sense of how things are, it is almost impossible to change things positively and bring about improvement.
The context for refugee education is very different to normal schools and classrooms. We don’t have smart modern classrooms. Often we don’t have classrooms at all. We have taught children sitting in fields in muddy ice, and sitting on rocks under an oppressive sun. We’ve huddled in leaking tents and crouched under shelters in rain storms. We have given lessons outside where children take it in turns to be on ‘look out duty’ for snakes. We often lack access to electricity and the most basic of school materials. On quite a few occasions we have had to end lessons because it was too dark to see, or because paper was too wet to write on.
Yet despite these very different and challenging physical circumstances we know that we still need data. Just because we have more challenging conditions, it does not mean that we can opt out of constantly trying to raise standards and improve the education which we are providing.
We constantly see well meaning low expectations around refugee children. We have had well meaning visitors turn up and look at our children with bullet wounds or bomb burns. They’ve heard the stories of torture and abuse and they immediately assume that the children cannot do normal lessons of Maths, English and Science. People tell us to make it easier for the children and give them colouring or drawing to do instead.
Such comments are well meaning but they are low-expectations nonsense. We find that children are desperately keen to get back to learning. Some of the children who have suffered abuse are there first thing in the morning before teachers arrive. Far from being too traumatised to learn, they are desperate to get an education and improve their lives.
Yes we have had depressed children who need to be coaxed gently back to interacting with other children. We have children who spend periods of time weeping and some who are so scared that ISIS is coming for them they have to have their parents sit with them. We have others who want to talk about really awful things. But good educators with access to data driven high standards, can work pastorally with the children without allowing it to become an excuse for lowering standards.
We have seen refugee children let down far too often with well meaning low standards. We have seen the false kindness which has the children spending all their time doing jigsaws and colouring in, whilst they are unable to even write their name in the Western alphabet. It may seem a kindness on the surface to spend time playing with traumatised and disadvantaged children. But it isn’t a kindness if it means that each day they are slipping further and further behind academically. Children will not look back and see a kindness when the result in the future is that they are unemployable because they have missed out on their education.
Even the children themselves tell us this. I remember vividly a couple of 15 year old girls crying at the end of their first lesson. When I asked them what was wrong, they said nothing was wrong. They said it had been four years since they had been at school. They were just really happy to be able to do proper school again and learn things. Even when they had (other people’s) babies to look after they would still try to attend lessons, taking it in turns to amuse the babies while the other engaged with school work.
One pupil who sticks in my memory is 16 year old Afsana. She told me how her family were killed in Syria and how she found a baby amongst dead bodies when she was escaping. She had no idea of the babies name and couldn’t find anyone to take the baby. So she ended up caring for him and taking him to Turkey with her. Sadly one night when she was sleeping the baby was stolen from her side by suspected traffickers. She still wakes up every night crying over him. She sometimes cries when he comes into her mind doing school work, but she absolutely refuses to take time out to recompose herself. Every minute of school is precious to her because she wants to become a teacher.
She has attended activities in the refugee camp women’s centre but she doesn’t want to learn to knit. She doesn’t want to chat and she doesn’t want to get her nails painted (again). She wants to learn Maths, English and Science so that she can go to college and become a science teacher. As things stand in Greece, there is no plan for the education of children over the age of 15. Children like Afsana are effectively written off. She has no hope, except for the education which adhoc charities can provide in refugee camps.
As teachers we are absolutely committed to doing what we can to help children like Afsana. We know that at the heart of a high quality education is the use of educational data in order to keep standards high.
With refugee education, however, it is not always clear what data we should be using. We sometimes have children from half a dozen different countries, working in yet another country with teachers from 2 or 3 other countries and an understanding that the children may end up in yet a further country. In that kind of context we need international educational data.
Fortunately, every three years the OECD carries out the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) project, which compares education between countries. The last set of published data was the 2012 assessments (although we expect the 2015 data to be published in December 2016). The 2012 data covered the 34 countries of the OECD plus another set of partner countries. In total some half a million children across 65 countries were assessed in Maths, English and Science, as well as providing information about themselves and their attitudes. The finished report comes to more than 2000 pages, but it provides a fascinating insight into international educational standards.
To give an example of how PISA helps us, I shall turn to one of the most basic issues for teachers: attendance. Once an educational programme has been set up and children are attending regularly teachers than have to ask the question of whether the children are attending regularly enough. To answer this question they need data.
PISA data tells us that across the OECD countries some 25% of students reported that they truanted from a lesson or from school, at least once in the previous fortnight. The UK happens to be precisely average with 25%. However the figures are wildly different around the rest of the world. In Germany only 12% of children reported that they truanted, whilst in the middle Eastern countries it was 57% (Jordan) 28% (Qatar) and 50% (UAE).
The question for us as teachers is which figure should we use as a benchmark for refugee education. The temptation is to use the data of the country in which we are teaching. But if we did that it would mean that in Greece we should treat 48% truancy as the benchmark, whilst in Jordan the figure would be 57%.
To avoid these kinds of complexities we take a very simple approach and use the OECD PISA average as our benchmark. So whatever country we teach in, we expect at least 75% of children to attend every session which they are timetabled for.
Actually the reality is much better than this and we normally achieve at least 90% attendance. Depending on the time of day, or the day of week. We will occasionally lose children for medical appointments and Aid distributions. In some camps where there are limited sanitary arrangements we lose children from lessons when they get “shower appointments.” As these come around only once a week or even once a fortnight, it is entirely right that children prioritise them over lessons.
When people visit us in the field they often comment on how different we are to UK schools. We don’t have the visible paperwork and stresses familiar to teachers. However we do use data and educational management tools, we just keep them out of the way in the background so that teachers can focus on what is important: changing children’s lives.