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22 Dec 2022
Neelofar Ahmed

Ensuring rights-based quality Education for Refugee in host communities: An analysis of policy, curriculum, teaching and pedagogies in Ontario, Canada

In this blog post, part of the NORRAG Blog Series on the Role of Quality Education in Building Just and Sustainable Peace, Neelofar Ahmed, doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies of Education at the University of Toronto, considers children refugees’ integration into host countries’ education systems. Focusing on the case of Ontario, Canada, the author calls for equitable education that includes human rights principles, in order to empower and better include refugees into host societies.

During the global pandemic of COVID-19, most sovereign states from the global North to the South had to close schools to protect human lives at the cost of sacrificing children’s right to quality education. During the initial phase of the lockdown, school closures in 190 countries across the world disrupted education for more than 1.27 billion children from K-12 and, every four out of five nation-states decided to strategize multimodal responses (for example, online, hybrid, TV, Radio, and Pre-recorded online lessons) but only 95 countries incepted online learning using the existing technology infrastructure and resources (UNESCO, 2022The World Bank, 2021) with the expectation to overcome the learning loss. The emerging research, however, indicates that the inception of virtual learning has only exacerbated the inequality of access to quality education for marginalized and vulnerable learners; failed to generate similar outcomes to in-person learning (Ahmed, et al, 2020UNESCO, 2022). It implies that emergencies restrict students’ access to education, and social and economic conditions negatively impact students’ learning outcomes. This hypothesis gives us a small ‘taste’ of what a daily reality is for refugees (UNHCR, 2021) and an insight into what education looks like for more than 33 million children categorized as internally displaced persons (IDP), asylum seekers, stateless or forced migrants, and refugee who are affected by war and armed conflicts and to whom access to quality education remains disrupted due to emergencies (UNICEF, 2021). For these displaced youth living in conflict zones, camps and hosting countries, the global pandemic has intensified the socio-psychological and economic challenges and restricted their access to quality education. The onset of virtual learning proved challenging as most did not have stable electricity, internet connectivity, high-end electronic gadgets, and tutoring support to access online learning lessons (Hancock et al., 2021). These inequalities will likely accelerate the school drop-out ratio and cause long-term learning loss among refugee students (UNHCR, 2021).

While international legal treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child bind participating states to provide quality education to every child (OHCHR, 2022United Nations, 2022), refugee children living in conflict zones and camps are not always privileged to access quality education or attend national schools in some hosting countries. Refugee education is provided through a network of global, inter-government and local actors in collaboration with nation-states. The extent and the purposes of quality education emanate from how these actors envision refugee children’s possible future – return or repatriation, transnationalism and integration or resettlement (Dryden-Peterson, 2019). Moreover, the economic and geo-political conditions of hosting states and their status of being not a signatory or party to some (or all) articles of the 1951 Refugee Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) influence their commitment towards children right to education. For instance, in border-sharing countries such as Pakistan, where Afghan refugees began to arrive in the late 1970s, a unique pattern of return, volunteer repatriation, transnationalism, integration and resettlement is observed. However, access to quality education remains problematic for refugee children as Pakistan’s national education system struggle with structural inequalities, social class stratification, inadequate infrastructure and the urban-rural divide (Ahmed et al., 2020). In the case of Afghan refugee students, these challenges are reported to have coupled with the issues of gender disparity, with more Afghan girls out of school than boys (UNHCR, 2022). Refugees hosting countries which are not state parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, such as Bangladesh, anticipate that the refugees will eventually return to their lands or continue to live in the refugee camps. Considering a future of repartition, education is provided through learning centers within the camps, and access to quality education aims at skills development to create economic opportunities for their selves. For Rohingya refugee children living in the Kutupalong refugee settlement or those relocated to Bhasan Char, for example, the right to education is restricted to the Maynmar curriculum only, and Rohingya children are inhibited from learning the Bangla language or the national curriculum to curtail the prospects of assimilation (Human Right Watch, 2019).

Countries such as Greece is an example where refugee children are anticipated to have a transnational future. In Greece, which is considered an entry country to the European Union (EU), refugee education is provided at the Reception Centers For Refugees (RCFP), located at camps or urban locations where they learn a language for a year (Forced Migration Review, 2019). Refugee education in Greece is problematic as the enrolment ratio is inconsistently low despite the national and EU laws insisting on formal school enrollment of refugee children within three months of arrival. A lack of refugee camp facilities, teacher training and inadequate social policies leads to a higher out-of-school ratio among the refugee population (Ratković et al., 2020). Whereas in Jordan, where about 80% of refugees live in host communities, education is provided through UNRWA, and the Ministry of Education’s full-day (or double shifts) schools in collaboration with international partners (Queen Rania Foundation, 2018) and access to quality education aims at fostering resilience and social integration for refugee children within the community. However, with limited resources and reduced learning hours due to double shifts at national schools, refugee children experience discrimination and violence that triggers the chances of school drop-out.

Among global North refugee hosting countries such as Canada, policymakers anticipate a future of resettlement for refugees. Therefore, the right to quality education aims at social cohesion, assimilation, and acceptance into society (Dryden-Peterson, 2019). In this blog, I will initiate the discussion on refugee students’ access to quality education in Ontario, Canada and argue that the framing of “quality education for refugee students” can never be realized unless their pre, post and trans-migration experiences are understood to bridge the gap between policy and practice. This insight is vital as refugee students witness atrocities, human rights violations, and persecution during periods of exile and transition. In many cases, refugee children suffer from fear and acute short – and long-term trauma which triggers depression, a sense of loss and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): a clinical condition of psychological and social-emotional distress which could severely affect refugee children’s resilience and social skills (Ratkovic et al., 2019; Stewart, 2012).

Before looking at refugee children’s access to right-based education in Ontario, it is pertinent to acknowledge that Canada is one of the leading OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) countries whose multilateral funding supports humanitarian organizations such as the UNHCR to protect and provide assistance to “refugees and forcibly-displaced persons” (Government of Canada, 2022). Alongside, Canada’s bilateral funding specifically provides assistance to refugee-hosting countries such as Jordan where access to quality public education is provided in partnership with the Ministry of Education (UNHCR, 2020). With Canada fulfilling its global responsibility to ensure refugee children’s right to quality education, I further this blog to discuss the education system in Ontario, Canada and explore how policymakers and other stakeholders ensure children’s right to access quality education through policy, curriculum, teaching in public schools. In doing so, I discuss the integral roles of the Ministry of Education and the Education Quality and Assurance Office (EQAO): the former develops policies, curriculum for K-12, and school programming (including classroom instructions and teaching pedagogies), and the latter conducts assessments on students’ learning outcomes aligned with the curriculum expectations.

In Ontario, the purpose of education was re-visioned by the Royal Commission on Learning in the early 1990s to provide all children with quality education to meet the challenges of the 21st century and become productive citizens (Gardner, 2017). This vision led to the creation of the EQAO in 1996 as a government agency to quantify student learning outcomes on Ontario Curriculum expectations and standards for student performance (EQAO, 2022). Each year, the EQAO benchmarks students’ educational attainments and provides recommendations to the Ministry of Education on what students are learning and what parents should expect them to learn in each grade through a standard curriculum (EQAO, 2022). Based on the following academic year results, the recommendations guide the Ministry of Education to allocate funding and resources to schools and alter school programming and classroom instruction per Ontario curriculum and provincial standards (Hancock et al., 2021). While standardized testing provides accountability to public tax money, it is often critiqued for having emerged from the neoliberal ideology where learning outcomes are implicitly linked with skills needed to thrive in the knowledge-based labour market (Elizadirad, 2019). The economic market-driven approach widens the achievement gaps for marginalized students and provides “home benefit” to those from advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, albeit maintaining the social class stratification and power dynamics within the society (Dei, 2000; McNeil, 2000). The Ontario education policy, as outlined in Ontario’s Education Equity Plan (2017, inspires educators to adopt an equitable, inclusive, and human rights perspective in their practices by “eliminating discriminatory practices, systemic barriers and bias from schools.” To this end, educators are encouraged to use Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogies (CRRP): one that “provide accommodation of the needs specified by human rights law and to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed” (Ministry of Education, 2017). Teachers are responsible for classroom teaching, pedagogies and lessons following the broader curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2022). When it comes to teaching Human Rights, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC ) provides resources and guidelines through OHCR Code on topics such as discrimination and harassment for secondary and high school courses including law, history and civics (and career), as well for “English as a Second Language” classes (OHRC, 2022).

Ontario schools provide free and compulsory education to all students (Government of Canada, 2022) and serve as a place of socialization for newcomers. However, for most refugee students, the transition into a new Western schooling system is far more challenging than their migrant counterparts. Due to months or even years of disrupted education and missing educational documents refugee students are often placed in grades corresponding to their age and not to what they know in their countries of camps. Due to a language barrier, refugee students are placed in ESL (English as a Secondary Language) classes and labelled as ESL learners or newcomers (Kilbride et al., 2000; Kovačević, 2016; MacNevin, 2012). This labelling systematically restricts their participation in national and international testing on the pretext of not having developed sufficient skills to undertake the EQAO assessment, which then gives rise to a risk of non-representation of refugee students’ educational needs and impedes the creation of classroom assessment tools to help them thrive. (Hancock et al., 2020).

Canada is globally recognized as a defender of human rights (Human Rights Watch, 2022) specifically for its advocacy of refugee children’s right to education, however, the Ontario curriculum appears inconsistent with this vision and is often criticized to reflect a Westernized exceptionalism that uses a hegemonic approach to criticize human rights violations outside its country, and is alleged to violate the fundamental rights of Indigenous people such as safe drinking water, detention of minor migrants (HRW, 2022) or most recently the invoke of never-before-used emergency powers to disassemble the Freedom Convoy protest (BBC News, 2022). Ontario policy rhetoric strongly recommends human rights-oriented practices, whereas the curriculum prioritizes topics that help students learn about their rights and responsibilities, to develop a political view (to vote), and acquire transferable skills (Ministry of Education, 2022). Human Rights Education, as a subject, is embedded within the idea of “Global Education” which either under-empathizes global issues or discusses less-controversial problems (Mundy & Manion, 2008). Whereas among Canada’s counterparts such as the United States or most  European countries, human rights education has gained considerable attention both in terms of scholarship and integration into education (Russell, 2018).

The above discussion highlights the gap between global policy rhetoric and local practices and indicate that refugee students’ access to quality education in a hosting country with a future of resettlement is problematic. Their integration in Ontario’s public schools is inclusive but not necessarily equitable, and the inherent policy-practice gap perpetuates inequalities among the under-represented and marginalized students. As I mentioned earlier, a refugee’s inclusive education framework can not be realized without acknowledging their prior traumatic experiences and those who witness atrocities during their pre-migration lives feel hostility and betrayal by the global community (Kondic, 2011). Therefore, refugee communities must be enabled to build trust in the host community, understand their rights and global concepts, and learn to mitigate the challenges through self-advocacy.

Researchers agree that transformative human rights education adopts participatory and experiential pedagogical approaches to help foster critical thinking among the participants for individual and collective actions (Bajaj 2011; Tibbitts, 2017). Human rights education through student-centric and critical pedagogies ensures active student participation (Tibbitts, 2002; Russell, 2018) and inculcates the process of self-making, which serves as the starting point for advocacy, a response to human rights violations, a connection and interdependence with others, and develops a deeper understanding of the global concepts through personal experiences (Bajaj, 2011). Education for refugee students and their families is a healing process that promises a new beginning and a prosperous future (Ratkovic et al., 2017). To do so, the education provided needs to be quality education and one that includes human rights in and through education.

In Ontario, very few studies examine the impact of learning human rights in and through education on refugee students. More research is needed, and more action is required if host countries fulfil the right to education for refugees.

About the Author: Neelofar Ahmed is a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies of Education, University of Toronto, Ontario Canada. Her research sits at the nexus of global governance, human rights, multiple migration, and comparative education. Email: neelofar.ahmed@mail.utoronto.ca; neelofar.ahmed@gmail.com

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