Every day, millions of Syrian children miss out on an education. Among the devastating impacts of conflict and displacement, children not sitting down to books and sums probably isn’t top of mind for most people. But the impacts of a lost education can be profound and echo down many generations. 

Girl outside a school destroyed in the Syrian town of Kobani (Photo: Rauf Maltas/Getty Images)

Education has a lasting impact not just on a child’s life, but on the peace and stability of entire nations. With around 2.8 million Syrian children out of school in Syria and neighbouring countries, it’s important that we focus on getting these children into school now, rather than waiting until the conflict is over.

Not only do children have the right to an education in any context but education can protect children in times of conflict. When children are in school, they are less vulnerable to risks such as child labour, early marriage, and recruitment by armed groups.

This is why we welcomed the focus on education at the Syria donor conference held in London earlier this month. Of the $US7.76 billion appeal, the UN is asking for US$1.4 billion to support 2.1 million children inside Syria, and 1.7 million Syrian refugee and affected host community children in neighbouring countries for 2016.

Commitments made at this donor conference were a good step towards supporting the millions of children affected by this crisis, but only a combination of fulfilled pledges, additional funding and policy change can meet the urgent need.

Attended by 70 world leaders including UK Prime Minister, the US Secretary of State, and Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, the pledges that flowed at the conference were unprecedented, with $US5.9 billion committed for 2016 alone.

But, while some donors gave very generously to education, specific education commitments were largely absent. Conseqently, it is not clear how much of the total pledged amount will be for education.

This is a problem. Without the $1.4 billion, it will be impossible to provide quality education for the millions of children affected by this conflict.

But money is only part of the issue.

Policy changes that would remove some of the barriers that keep children out of the classroom must also be implemented. While a few policy changes were announced at the conference, including commitments from Jordan and Lebanon to support non-formal education, and to provide a safe and inclusive environment with psychosocial support for refugee children, much more needs to be done. 

Children are out of school for a number of reasons. In refugee-hosting countries, resources and capacities are extremely overstretched with children facing different education challenges.

Some children are unable to get back into school simply because they have missed too many years and cannot catch up. With the conflict soon to enter its sixth year, there are now many 10-year-olds  who have never had the opportunity to go to school, but instead spend their days working to support their families.

Those lucky enough to get to school are at increased risk of dropping out as they continue to face obstacles to their learning once inside the classroom. These include suffering severe trauma and anxiety, unfamiliar language of instruction and curriculum, instances of bullying and discrimination, a shortage of trained and supported teachers, and limited legal or residency status hindering access to education. Then there is the physical danger. While the warring parties in Syria continue to bomb and occupy schools on a regular basis there is a limit to what humanitarian agencies can do because they are severely restricted in their access to children or schools.

Between 2011 and the end of 2014, more than half of all attacks on schools took place in Syria. At least one in four schools in this country have been destroyed, damaged, or are now used for other purposes, including occupation by armed groups.

Even where schools are open, a deterioration of psychosocial well-being of children and teachers, parents’ fear of sending their children to school, economic pressures and the need for children to work to support their families, can all lead to high dropout rates, and ultimately more children missing out on education.

Education has many benefits that extend beyond the children to communities, nations and beyond.

Ensuring children can continue their education is an investment in prosperity and stability. The longer children receive a high-quality education, the less likely they are to live in poverty and the more likely they will contribute positively to their countries’ economies.

Empirical studies also show that higher levels of education in a country can lead to greater peace and lower chances of conflict.

Overall, the cumulative effect of the significant pledges and policy changes committed to at the conference in London have the potential to be game-changing for those affected by the crisis. But on their own, they are not enough to ensure there will not be an entire generation of Syrian children who know nothing more than the brutality of war.