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Taking refuge in English


A British Council project in the refugee camps of Ethiopia aims to improve English teaching and give inhabitants a voice.

Getting a good education while attending a school in a refugee camp can be a struggle. Crowded classrooms, a babble of different languages being spoken and a shortage of qualified teachers can all create a perfect recipe for underachievement.

None more so than in Ethiopia, which has become one of the largest host countries for refugees in Africa.

Some 855,000 refugees are registered in the East African nation, with incomers largely from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen. Almost a third of registered refugees are between the ages of five and seventeen, with an estimated 50 per cent of school-age children still out of school.

More than 60 per cent of refugee schools do not meet minimum standards. They are overcrowded, with large numbers of over-age students in primary schools. Sometimes around half a class can be made up of people over the age of eleven, with a significant number in their twenties and thirties.

There is a lack of qualified teachers – some 65 per cent are unqualified – and there is a tendency for girls to be excluded. There is also a dearth of appropriate teaching and learning materials.

The British Council’s Language for Resilience (L4R) programme began five years ago in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Turkey and Greece. The programme aims to provide evidence about how language learning can give a voice to refugees. It also aims to build social cohesion, not only within multi-ethnic, multi-lingual camps but also improve relations with host communities. Providing individuals with the skills they need to access work, services, education and information is also key.

The development and success of the scheme saw it transfer to Ethiopia in 2016.

December marked the start of the second phase of the project.

Here, in the Beni-Shangul region of western Ethiopia, near the Sudanese border, primary classrooms can hold 50–100 students, speaking 35 different languages.

While the Ethiopian government stipulates that, nationally, education should be taught in first language up to at least primary Grade 4, this presents a challenge for the refugee schools. The sheer diversity of languages and lack of teachers and resources to match those languages mean that in the camps the national curriculum is taught through the medium of English from Grade 1.

Working with UN refugee agency the UNHCR and the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), we observed a number of challenges this presented in terms of the quality of English teaching in the camps. The first was that 65 per cent of teachers are refugees themselves (notably from Sudan and South Sudan, with some from the Great Lakes). They are often under-qualified or with no qualifications, lacking both basic teaching skills and English language skills.

Secondly, there are limited English language resources within the refugee education system.

Another big issue is that there is a large number of over-age students in primary classes, largely due to the demand for education or a school certificate.

English is the language that, according to many refugees, can contribute to their education and employment aspirations.

Following discussions with the UNHCR and ARRA, a pilot programme was launched focusing on developing both English proficiency and teaching skills. The British Council’s English for Teaching (EfT) course was introduced as part of the continuing professional development programme for school teachers in the Beni-Shangul camps. It is a 120-hour course designed to improve both a teacher’s English proficiency and pedagogical skills.

Throughout the pilot, British Council trainers worked closely with twenty selected teacher-educators and the four school principals. The aim was to strengthen their English proficiency and confidence and improve their knowledge of learner-centred teaching methodology and its practical classroom implementation.

We also wanted to develop skills to build the capacity of teachers to deliver EfT to others and provide support during and after courses. The project has grown and now 210 teachers, from both Ethiopia and refugee communities, have taken the EfT course and are working in the Beni-Shangul camps.
English language proficiency and teaching has improved significantly, according to proficiency test scores, compared to the base line after a period of just four months. Fewer teachers performed at A1 level (beginner) and there was an increase in the number of teachers testing at B1 (intermediate) and B2 (upper-intermediate). During this period teachers were also observed to be using more learner-centred and interactive methodology.

Phase II of the pilot project aims to further improve English and teaching skills and expand the number of teacher-educators and increase the mentor network in Beni-Shangul. It will also include a recently established fifth camp. The British Council Ethiopia is also actively seeking co-funding to embed a long-term and sustainable system of relevant development for refugee and host-community school leaders, teacher educators and teachers in Beni-Shangul.

Tanya Cotter is senior adviser for English in education systems at the British Council, based in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.


‘They had very different priorities:
high protein biscuits’

On my first visit to a refugee camp in Ethiopia in February 2016, I spoke to six refugees who had recently arrived from Sudan and South Sudan.

We were visiting along with the UNHCR and Ethiopian ARRA officials, and I was more nervous than at a job interview.

I asked the refugees about their educational needs but the translated reply showed very different priorities: high-protein biscuits.

Today, seven visits later, I feel a little more confident about education in these refugee schools. I have now experienced classes, met teachers, students, administrators and some parents, and planned, delivered and monitored our pilot.

But I am still hesitant to talk to the refugees about other aspects of their lives, such as the conflicts back home, their journeys to Ethiopia and their hopes and aspirations. It is about creating trust, between ourselves and the refugees, and the Ethiopian hosts who also have political balances to strike. Too many personal questions can upset this balance for everyone.

But the teachers, both the refugees and Ethiopians, tell us they have benefited from our programme.

There is a buzz of interest and motivation at our workshops that trainers long to see.

We see teachers moving away from lecturing and some lively pair or group work that appears to momentarily take everyone’s minds off being a refugee.

The prolonged and direct experience we’ve built up over the months has helped us to appreciate the context of these classrooms and their importance to the lives of people here.

Peter Hare is British Council head of English for education systems in Ethiopia.

The British Council’s Language for Resilience exhibition will launch in March at their offices at Spring Gardens and run until June 22.

Pic courtesy: Courtesy: EU ECHO and Save the Children - Somali refugees Heleweyn camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.