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The sky's the limit: UWCSEA supports transformational education for refugee youth

Courtney Carlson, Former Senior Communications Manager
19 June 2018

UWCSEA supports transformational education for refugee and displaced youth around the world through Sky School.

From Syria to South Sudan to Myanmar and beyond, the plight of refugees continues to demand attention as one of the greatest humanitarian crises of our time. The numbers are daunting, with the UN estimating there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. Among them are 25.4 million refugees, more than 50% of whom are under 18. The resulting educational needs are staggering: only 9% of refugees in low income countries are able to complete secondary education, and across all refugees a mere 1% go on to higher education.

In 2016, two UWC alumnae and then staff at UWC International, Polly Akhurst (UWC Atlantic College ’06) and Mia Eskelund Pedersen (UWC Mahindra College ’07), began learning more about the tremendous gap in secondary education for young refugees while working on the UWC Refugee Initiative. During the global UWC Congress in October that year, they heard the UWC Syria National Committee’s story of having to turn away more than 300 UWC scholarship applicants annually. With UWC educators, alumni, volunteers, and staff from around the world gathered in one place, Polly and Mia began talking with people about how it might be possible to address the secondary education needs of refugees.

A serendipitous meeting with UWCSEA East’s Director of Teaching and Learning, Stuart MacAlpine, offered hope. When Polly and Mia asked him about whether he thought it might be possible to develop a secondary curriculum for refugee and displaced youth, Stuart quickly responded “yes”. UWCSEA’s multi-year curriculum articulation project and ongoing research has yielded a robust K–12 concept-based curriculum and rich expertise in curriculum development among our educators. As one of UWCSEA’s curriculum experts, Stuart knew it was in fact possible to devise a tailored curriculum to meet the particular learning and community needs of young refugees.

Out of Mia and Polly’s passion and vision and these early conversations, Sky School was born. Stuart serves as the organisation’s pro bono Director of Education, leading the development of the curriculum and modules for a full 1,000-hour high school diploma.

Additional UWCSEA community members joined the cause as well, with former East University Advisor (Dover University Advisor from August 2018), Shruti Tewari, volunteering as Sky School’s Head of Partnerships, supported by University Advisors Nikki Dinsdale and Patrick Desbarats. Numerous teachers have volunteered to support curriculum development. A Sky School student Focus Group was established at East in 2017 and quickly gained momentum. The students meet weekly, with Stuart’s guidance and the leadership of Grade 10 students Tomoko Miyakoshi and Philippa Baxter, to help research the needs of refugees, learn more about social entrepreneurship and project management, and support the thinking about the curriculum model.

A blended model

It was essential to find a model that would allow refugees, regardless of location, to access Sky School’s courses. After considerable research and exploration, they determined a blended model (online and offline) would offer flexible access without sacrificing the beneficial learning and engagement that comes through the classroom. Materials are distributed via a mobile application offered by Aula Education through which students can also participate in discussions and receive feedback on their assignments. In-class activities facilitated by a learning mentor help to deepen students’ learning.

In late 2017, a six-week pilot course on social entrepreneurship, based on the work of East’s Head of Enterprise and Business, Adam Steele, and aided by a group experienced in working with young refugees and in refugee education, launched with 50 students, aged 16–25. Each week, students completed six hours in person and four hours online. The course was offered in three locations: Amman, Jordan; Kakuma Camp, Kenya; and Athens, Greece. Feedback from students and facilitators alike was overwhelmingly positive, with a course retention rate of 72% and 100% of students saying they would recommend Sky School courses to a friend.

Transformational learning

One of the key principles for Sky School is that the learning be applicable in students’ lives and communities, which gives them much greater agency and control in their life going forward.

In asking about the nature of the learning model, Stuart said, “We’re finding out what kind of education is transformational immediately—learning that helps students now and also prepares them for the future.

At UWCSEA, we have the ability to develop transformational curriculum to help make a better world. Through our partnership with Sky School, we can help to offer refugee youth high-quality concept-based teaching and learning in their community.”

In addition, the model is scalable so that the learning will be widely accessible to refugee youth around the world.

Sky School Diploma - Prototype Model

  Change making Peace building Politics and economics Literacy, Arts and Culture STEM and innovation
Module 1

Becoming a change maker

Developing an impact project

Peacebuilding in our community

Conflict resolution

Global and geo-politics

Politics making change in public life

Language, stories and identity

Culture and expression

Thinking mathematically

Maths for change

Module 2

Research and advocacy

Managing complexity


Community action

Sustainable development

Circular economic

Public and political art

Public communication

Scientific literacy

Information technology & innovation

Curriculum hackathons

Following the success of the pilot course, Sky School aims to offer all 10 modules of their High School Diploma by late 2019. To complete the required curriculum development, they are convening educators who volunteer to lead and participate in course design ‘hackathons’ to rapidly develop the individual modules which combine to form the courses.

Ellie Alchin, Head of High School Humanities (Director of Teaching and Learning at Dover Campus from August 2018) and leader of the Peacebuilding course hackathon held 6–7 June at East Campus, describes the hackathon as a “network of passionate and concerned educators from around the world, coming together to fast-track Sky School’s curriculum development.” In fact the Peacebuilding hackathon would also establish the model for the forthcoming hackathons for other Sky School courses.

This inaugural two-day hackathon included UWCSEA educators, Sky School team members, UWC alumni, experts in refugee education, NGO leaders experienced in peacebuilding, and former refugees. Structured activities facilitated the rapid development of a 10-week/100-hour Peacebuilding module’s conceptual understandings.

Peacebuilding course leader and East High School teacher, Louie Barnett, would then finalise the course module for its launch on 25 June 2018.

In late June, UWC Maastricht in the Netherlands, is hosting a second hackathon to revise the Change Making and Social Entrepreneurship course into a full 10-week course, and other hackathons are anticipated later this year.

UWCSEA community support and opportunities

From teachers volunteering their time in curriculum hackathons, to the student focus group, Sky School has attracted wide interest and support from the UWCSEA community. Not only is the interest substantial, so are the opportunities for the College community.

Teachers are building capacity in curriculum design, and Sky School’s model can inform our approaches to blended learning. The collaboration through the hackathons is broadening the College’s network of partners with shared values. And there are tremendous learning opportunities for students, whether learning about social enterprises, flexible education models, advocacy for refugees, or working with refugee youth.

Earlier this year, Stuart and student focus group leader, Tomoko, presented their work with Sky School to the UWCSEA Board of Governors, seeking support for a continued partnership.

Anna Lord, Chair of the Board of Governors, had this to say: “When I attended the UWC Congress [in October 2016], Honorary President of the Norwegian Red Cross, Sven Mollekliev’s closing words really stuck with me: ‘No one can care for everyone, but everyone can care for someone’. When Stuart and Tomoko presented Sky School to the Board, those words came right back to me. Sky School gives us an opportunity to live up to our mission. While so many people are building walls and closing borders, we really need to open our eyes, hearts and minds to the plight of refugees.

Through Sky School, we can help move the focus from caretaking to empowering refugees to realise their potential. Our teachers and students will have opportunities to work with their peers in refugee camps and around the world to design a learning model that is relevant for the world of today. Through collaboration on curriculum, projects and assignments, each can learn from the other. When these young refugees finally realise their dreams of returning home in a post-conflict world, they will be the leaders needed to rebuild their societies. It seemed to us, as a Board, that we had a duty to lend our support to our incredible staff and students who are taking action to make a difference in the world.”

Learn more about Sky School at Sky School was recently named a UWCx Initiative.