In 2022, 43 million children were displaced amounting to 41% of all internally displaced and refugee individuals worldwide (UNICEF, 2023). The large number of refugee children of school age has been a challenge for many host countries aiming to integrate refugee children in their educational systems, not least because of the various difficulties and barriers refugee children face attending school in the host countries, due to language barriers, ethnic and cultural differences, financial pressures, and displacement-related trauma. As a result, refugee children have lower attachment to education and higher drop-out rates than native children, which create persistent gaps in their skills and knowledge and long-term labor market outcomes.
The integration of refugee children into host countries’ education systems is crucial for their academic development, social integration, and future labor market outcomes. Teachers are potentially key actors in facilitating the integration of refugee children into the education systems of host countries and fostering their academic advancement. Yet, they might not always be adequately prepared for teaching diverse classrooms or fully aware of the circumstances of refugee children and able to address their needs.
In a new paper, Tümen, Vlassopoulos and Wahba (2023) provide novel evidence regarding the key role that training and professional development of teachers can play in addressing the low school attachment and academic achievement of refugee children. They studied a large-scale teacher training program in Türkiye designed to facilitate the educational integration of Syrian refugee children, using rich administrative micro-level data encompassing the universe of primary and secondary schools in two Turkish provinces (Gaziantep and Sanliurfa). These are the largest border provinces with Syria, hosting a total of 872,000 Syrian refugees—corresponding to about 21% share of refugee to population ratio.
The teacher training program was implemented during the semester break of the school year 2017-18 by the Ministry of National Education of the Republic of Türkiye (MoNE) and was funded by the EU. The main goals of the training program were to increase teachers’ awareness on the needs of refugee students, to encourage/equip teachers to act as school-wide mentors, and to empower them to foster a broader refugee-friendly school atmosphere.
The authors evaluated whether this training led to an improvement in refugee children’s school attendance and learning outcomes and found that it led to a significant reduction in refugee students’ school absenteeism. The program almost halves the absenteeism gap between native and refugee students, and its effect persists into the next academic year. They also found a significant improvement on the grades of refugee students in Turkish language and Math subjects, and a positive association between improved attendance and grades.
Teachers are among the most powerful actors to effectively tackle integration challenges in educational settings. The analysis suggests that host countries are potentially underinvesting in programs aiming to equip teachers with the necessary skills to address the needs of refugee students. There are several chronic problems in many host countries related to teachers’ capacity to address refugee students’ needs—e.g., language and communication skills, and other complementary skills related to teachers’ professional development, such as teaching minorities, basic counselling, relationship with parents, intra-class conflict resolution, and classroom management in diverse environments.
Better preparation of teachers to face the multidimensional challenges in diverse educational settings could substantially improve the effectiveness of refugee integration policies.