This article has been published in Enabling Education Review 10
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Title: EENET survey: Home learning for children with disabilities, Syria
Author: Corcoran, S, Pinnock, H and Twigg, R
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2021

Su Corcoran, Helen Pinnock and Rachel Twigg

In 2020, EENET conducted a survey to inform the development of home learning materials for families living in low-resource contexts. Here, we share findings from respondents in Syria.

Project rationale
School closures in response to COVID-19 left parents responsible for children’s education needs as they learned at home. There was an increase in the number of online home learning resources and television or radio broadcast lessons, but less focus on support for home learning for learners with disabilities in low-income contexts. In partnership with Norwegian Association of Disabled (NAD), EENET developed guidance and materials to encourage appropriate, achievable, and low-stress learning activities for all learners.

Choosing content
An online survey provided a snapshot of home learning situations from the perspective of parents, families, and education professionals in 27 countries. In addition, local enumerators from NAD Zambia and State University of Zanzibar conducted a telephone survey with 97 parents, caregivers, and guardians. The findings informed the content of the resources.

Here we focus on findings from northern Syria, where mainstream schools were completely closed. Data reports and other publications can be found at:

Home learning provision
Centralised intervention for home learning focused on television and radio lessons, and some online materials, provided by the Ministry of Education. There were concerns from respondents that these approaches were problematic and available learning materials were not adapted for children with disabilities. But there were clear examples of interventions that supported learners, especially those with disabilities.

Most government schools did not provide educational support after the closures. However, localised interventions included:

  • supplementing televised educational programmes with support through social media;
  • providing printed materials;
  • NGOs coordinating night schools to take advantage of more reliable electricity supply and less strained internet signals;
  • teachers creating follow-up groups on platforms such as WhatsApp to provide guidance for parents and study-level support and follow up for students.

One innovation praised by respondents was the continuation of specialist provision for learners with disabilities in the early months of the pandemic. Learning and community centres liaised with parents through online groups where parents shared content (images, videos and audio) to support the learning of each other’s children. The centres provided targeted support, such as signed videos for deaf learners and additional audio-visual, motor and cognitive support where needed.

In northern Syria, such support is usually only provided by NGOs. Unfortunately, despite the initiative’s effectiveness, it only lasted a few months into the pandemic as the project’s funding was not renewed. Parents highlighted the difference between the ‘presence’ of children in their educational centres and distance learning. They felt that children with special needs were lost in the system after centres closed.

Another positive mentioned by respondents was the training provided to teachers on using phones and cameras to record their lessons. However, teachers’ access to the resources needed to set up distance learning lessons on platforms like Zoom or Google Classrooms remained a concern. There was also concern that teachers needed more help to prepare to support learners’ engagement with online platforms. Lack of reliable internet meant online distance learning experiences were not always effective.

Recommendations from survey respondents
Teachers and parents from Syria who completed the questionnaires made several recommendations to improve educational response to the pandemic:

  • Improve co-ordination and access to resources and digital media more specific to the curriculum (e.g. an easily accessible learning platform where all lessons – delivered by competent teachers – can be found, and printed transcripts available to support those with limited access to technology).
  • Improve communication between education stakeholders, including:
    • better communication between schools and learners about using the internet, television and radio to support home learning;
    • good quality internet subscriptions that enable direct communication between learners and teachers;
    • providing schools with equipment that they can use in a crisis (e.g. online communication tools, mobile phones etc.)
  • Recognise the importance of including learners with disabilities. Maintain a focus on their daily routines and provide activities to develop their knowledge and practical skills.

Common experiences and unique opportunities
We identified three key areas of learning during our analysis of survey responses from Syria:

1. Closing schools worsens children’s exclusion and risk
School closures increased existing divisions between learners as parents juggled work and supporting their children, lost jobs and income, or lacked the time, confidence, and/or literacy levels to be educators. The poorest families could not access the delivery of education via television, radio, or online platforms.

2. Context, connectedness, and collaboration make a difference
In northern Syria, education was meaningfully decentralised. Teachers and parents described useful support reaching families, including those with children with disabilities. Collaboration, and stronger local communication between education authorities and families around education were keys to success. NGOs provided education authorities with technical and practical support, resulting in better home learning support through existing small-scale networks.

3. Teachers: a community resource when schools are closed
Positive accounts of networking suggest that teachers should be treated as important resources for home learning in their communities, especially for the most excluded children. Many teachers have mobile phones they can use to reach out to local families, collect information, and offer advice if provided with call or data bundles. Schools can become hubs for information sharing via phone, when internet connection is limited. This would require rapid and innovative resourcing, but could be a useful focus area for aid partners.

EENET’s survey findings suggested resilience to school closure among respondents in Syria. This was rooted in pre-existing support networks and the decision-making and co-ordination capacity of regional education authorities. We need to understand better the role of local information and mutual support networks and how they are used by groups with low participation in education. School leadership, school committee members, and teachers need the tools to become an active part of those networks while schools are open. This will strengthen community ‘education resilience’ for when schools have to close. Teachers can be education activists in their home communities – motivated to identify children with extra support needs and advocate for additional support. Taking bottom-up approaches to education provision in emergencies helps practitioners and decision-makers recommend more locally appropriate and inclusive distance learning and home learning support.

Su is EENET’s programme officer and a research associate at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Helen is an EENET consultant. Rachel is a secondary school teacher and a doctoral researcher at MMU. She joined the EENET team as an MMU RISE project intern and volunteers her time alongside her teaching. Contact via the EENET office.