Attacks on Education: Approaches to improving safe access to education and the psychosocial well-being of children in Syria

Author: Julie Meier, October 2019.

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“While schools are meant to be safe learning spaces, the right to education is often compromised during times of conflict (“What Schools Can Do” 3). In Syria, attacks on education not only prevent children from receiving the education to which they are entitled, but such attacks also severely affect their psychosocial well-being.”

Image from Wikimedia Commons.  


Education, a fundamental human right and the focus of this paper, is often denied to children in conflict situations (Aguilar and Retamal 5). In Syria, years of conflict have reduced access to basic education with over two million school-aged children not in school (Mroue; Kolstad). The Syrian humanitarian crisis is severe, with 13 million people in need of assistance, 5.6 million of whom are children. In addition, half of the 6 million people who are internally displaced are children (OCHA; Elsafti et al. 874). These statistics emphasize the extreme vulnerability of children in Syria (HAC Syria 1).

While schools are meant to be safe learning spaces, the right to education is often compromised during times of conflict (“What Schools Can Do” 3). In Syria, attacks on education not only prevent children from receiving the education to which they are entitled, but such attacks also severely affect their psychosocial well-being. This paper discusses attacks on schools in Syria, where after eight years of conflict, the education of millions remains disrupted. Current research on the education of Syrian children largely focuses on Syrian refugees while little attention is paid to children that remain in the country. To address this gap, this paper explores current educational opportunities provided to children in Syria. It also looks at what measures should continue to be taken to lessen children’s exposure to attacks, to improve their access to education and address their psychosocial well-being. This paper first argues that alternative delivery of education should be increased and strengthened in Syria to reduce children’s exposure to attacks on schools, and second, the education programs in place should feature a psychosocial support (PSS) componentto strengthen the emotional well-being and resilience of children in crisis-affected Syria. Within the humanitarian field, the term ‘psychosocial’ looks at the close relationship between psychological and social characteristics of an experience. Psychosocial interventions address the mental and social impact of conflict, including emotions and cognitive development, e.g., the capacity to learn (Loughry et al. 3). PSS interventions for children include “culturally and age appropriate, safe and stimulating activities such as sports and games to develop life skills and coping mechanisms, and support resiliency” (“Child Protection from Violence and Abuse”).

This paper proceeds as follows: first, attacks on education in Syria are reviewed; second, Syrian and international actors’ current education aid and service provision is addressed; third, alternative education approaches, used to protect children from attacks on schools and ensure their continued learning, are presented; and fourth, the importance of including PSS in education and education aid efforts is highlighted.


For the past decade, studies have highlighted the prevalence of attacks on education during conflict (O’Malley). Two years prior to the start of the Syrian Civil War, Aguilar and Retamal reported the global increase in attacks on schools, emphasizing that “schools are no longer safe from attack during times of armed conflict” (5). Furthermore, attacks on schools have undermined their potential to be safe havens for students, especially in emergency settings (Aguilar and Retamal; Burde 636). Since 2011, both have become the case in Syria.

Until the Syrian conflict began in 2011, Syrian children and youth “were among the most educated in the Middle East,” with consistently high enrollment and graduation rates (Al Hessan 2). However, the conflict severely disrupted Syria’s previously strong education system, with attendance rates dropping as schools became unsafe. In 2015, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic stated that over “three million children had stopped attending school on a regular basis” (GCPEA 4).

According to the 2018 Education under Attack report by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), education in Syria suffers severely from attacks on schools, students, teachers, and other educational personnel. GCPEA also reports military use and recruitment at schools (GCPEA 1). These activities limit access to education and complicate education provision in Syria. In 2015, Save the Children found that more than half of all attacks on schools globally between 2011 and 2015 took place in Syria (GCPEA 2), and GCPEA reported an increase in attacks on Syrian schools in 2016 (3). Moreover, GCPEA data highlights that attacks on education occurred daily in 2017 (5), and in 2018, attacks continued at similar rates (ACU). By 2018, one in four Syrian schools had been damaged or destroyed (Kolstad). While attacks on education persist in Syria, aid to education is being delivered to ensure that children continue to have access to formal or non-formal education.


Despite attacks on schools during the ongoing civil war, Syrian teachers remain committed to providing education. A 2018 article by the Whole of Syria Education Sector revealed how education within Syria has not stopped, even in besieged areas such as Eastern Ghouta, which suffered 44 attacks on 38 schools between January and March 2018. In Ghouta, non-formal education spaces were formed underground to avoid attacks, while teachers shifted to digital messagingplatforms to provide students with lessons online (WoS). Apart from community solutions such as those in Ghouta, Syrian civil society and humanitarian actors, including international NGOs and UN agencies, provide education and aid to education in Syria. Of critical importance, Syrian civil society organizations (CSOs) work unremittingly to provide safe access to formal or non-formal education in Syria, often in partnership with the UN and other entities.

One such CSO is Masrrat Foundation, which provides non-formal education opportunities to children and works to increase access to education in its operational area in Idleb, Syria. Specifically, Masrrat engages in school rehabilitations and restorations, creates physical educational spaces for students with educational and logistical equipment, including school supplies; and helps teachers build skills focused on emergency education and self-teaching. Critically, Masrrat also provides capacity-building trainings for psychosocial support counselors. In 2018, Masrrat reached nearly 19,000 students, providing access to primary and secondary education as well as the other services mentioned (Alzeer). While Masrrat is only one of many local CSOs, their activities and reach highlight the importance of services provided by local actors. This is due to the access of such actors to communities and students, which is less restricted than that of international agencies. Their knowledge regarding local needs, culture, and the area, is also integral to the success of humanitarian responses (Autesserre 6). Since international actors often lack physical access to Syria, providing support to local organizations and building their capacity must be part of any humanitarian response to ensure that education aid can be delivered amid the difficult circumstances in Syria.

Currently, humanitarian organizations, including UN agencies and international NGOs, work with Syrian CSOs to provide education aid through education in emergencies (EiE) programming and other services. EiE aims to provide “uninterrupted education for every child affected by humanitarian crisis – especially girls, children with disabilities, internally displaced children, refugees and migrants” (“Education in Emergencies”).For example, agencies, in partnership with local and international organizations, deliver formal and non-formal education; establish, rehabilitate, and expand classrooms; and train teachers (No Lost Generation). While this section briefly discussed the local and international response to education needs in Syria, the following section addresses alternative approaches to education that must be further implemented and strengthened by those providing education aid and protecting education from attack across Syria.


GCPEA has recommended various measures that can and should be taken to protect children from attacks on schools while still providing educational support in complex emergencies. One approach to protect education from attack that is specifically applicable to Syria is alternative delivery of education. In Syria, increased alternative methods of education delivery can be employed at the school or community level with the support of community members and CSOs. Examples of such approaches are relocating places of education (e.g. classes moved to family homes, community buildings, religious sites, or other locations), community-based schools (i.e., smaller schools established in villages to diminish the risk of teachers and students traveling to and from larger schools in other towns from being targeted), varying school schedules and locations that help teachers and students avoid traveling to and from school during peak times of risk, as well as online learning (“What Schools Can Do to” 29-30).

Civil society and international actors such as Masrrat Foundation and UNICEF are firm supporters of alternative learning and education delivery programs in Syria, with UNICEF carrying out various such programs through local partners. Community-based schools, for example, can increase access to education (Burde et al. 637) and in Syria, both the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Ministry of Education have created such schools with funding and support from UNICEF (“My School”). Other alternative education delivery programs supported by UNICEF and carried out through local partners include the creation of ‘self-learning’ curricula (UNICEF Appeal; Badrasawi et al. 572). Self-learning initiatives across Syria, and especially in hard-to-reach areas such as Eastern Ghouta, are critically important as they can increase access to education by allowing students to guide themselves through the curriculum (UNICEF Appeal).

Since more than two million children remain out of school, alternative delivery of education efforts in Syria must be enhanced and increased (Kolstad). According to GCPEA, alternative delivery of education provides steady access to learning opportunities in emergencies while offering a routine to students, which also has psychosocial benefits (“What Schools Can Do” 8). The latter is discussed separately in the following section, as the delivery of psychosocial support (PSS) in education programs in Syria is vital. According to research, education has a strong potential to improve the well-being of children in emergency situations(Ager et al.; Burde et al. 645; Creed and Morpeth 2-3). Research has also shown that education can mitigate the negative effects that conflict has on children, in part by addressing “daily stressors and trauma through” PSS (Burde et al. 635).


Attacks on education and schools not only impede access to education, but they also profoundly affect the psychosocial well-being of students (Ferris and Winthrop 30; Retamal and Low 563; Aguilar and Retamal 4; Burde et al. 346). Hence, the provision of psychosocial activities is critical in crisis-affected areas such as Syria. Such activities can be delivered through protection-oriented school-based psychosocial interventions or informal psychosocial interventions that intend to strengthen both the education and overall mental health of children in conflict (Burde et al. 636). While programs that integrate education and PSS are not yet common (Burde et al. 641; ACU 101-104, 144; Hijazi 6), it is critical that education programs implemented in Syria feature context-specific PSS. Children with psychosocial challenges cannot fully benefit from an education until their psychosocial well-being is addressed.

Diverse school-based psychosocial interventions, which can reach a large number of children can address this deficiency (Burde et al. 641; Retamal and Low 537; Boothby and Melvin 4). While school-based PSS programs will not be “equally effective for all children,” (Burde et al. 642) evidence shows that in cases where PSS is provided in school, it has more often supported the children’s crisis recovery and improved mental health (641). Where schools are non-existent or too dangerous to operate, informal PSS interventions can be delivered through alternative delivery of education. Such programs are wide-ranging and can, for example, include temporary spaces for learning, child-friendly spaces for play, or community-based schools as addressed (Burde et al. 642-643). Assessments of informal PSS programming – especially when involving the arts, such as music – have shown encouraging outcomes in improving the mental health of children (643). The inclusion of PSS in formal and non-formal education settings is critically important for Syrian children who have grown up in the midst of conflict for the past eight years.


This research paper promotes alternative delivery of education programming in Syria, both in formal and non-formal education spaces. Such programming is currently ongoing and must be further strengthened, to decrease exposure to attacks on education while increasing access to education. Additionally, this paper argues for the inclusion of PSS components in formal and non-formal education aid programs provided in Syria, to address and support the emotional well-being and resilience of children. Educational programs, whether conducted in formal or informal spaces, should include PSS. For both formal and non-formal education in Syria, alternative delivery of education approaches should be continually applied to ensure the security of students while safeguarding their right and access to an education, preferably including PSS. With ongoing attacks on education, resulting in more than two million children absent from school, there is a serious need for education aid that addresses both the educational and psychosocial needs of Syrian children.


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