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CEO Focus: From Textbooks to Technology, Resourcing Refugees to Learn

In the fourth of a series of interviews with private-sector leaders who pledged to help address the refugee crisis, we speak to Pearson chief executive John Fallon about the publisher’s efforts to tackle the huge challenge of educating displaced children.

Written by Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Children attend class in Amman, Jordan, in March 2014. Soeren Stache/dpa

Two years ago Pearson, the world’s largest education publishing company, launched a substantial effort to help more children fleeing from war or trapped by conflict to keep their education going.

The company partnered with the charity Save the Children and invested £1.5 million ($1.9 million) over three years in education for refugees and other children in Jordan.

About one-third of the funding for the Every Child Learning initiative went toward two learning centers in refugee neighborhoods of Amman, which aim to help children forced to miss school to integrate into the Jordanian education system.

The remainder was invested in research and development for solutions to the crisis of education for Syrian refugees, which the company hopes can then be adapted and used elsewhere. They will be piloted later this year.

Meanwhile, at the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in New York last September, Pearson agreed to extend the Every Child Learning partnership for two years and double its investment.

As part of our series of interviews with private-sector leaders engaging in the refugee crisis, Refugees Deeply spoke to Pearson CEO John Fallon about the company’s plans to expand refugees’ access to education.

Refugees Deeply: How did Pearson’s Every Child Learning partnership first come about?

John Fallon: As the world’s leading learning company, we are acutely aware that access to quality education in emergency and conflict settings is a major challenge. We all know of the enormous benefits that quality education has in these circumstances – but funding for education in emergencies is completely inadequate.

We wanted to help tackle this challenge but knew we couldn’t do it alone. Our expertise is in delivering educational products and services at scale – but we knew we would need to partner with others, like Save the Children, who have on-the-ground experience working in emergency contexts. Together, our ambition is to increase educational opportunities for vulnerable children in Jordan affected by the Syria crisis.

Refugees Deeply: How did you decide the most useful and efficient role for Pearson to play?

Fallon: As well as pledging direct financial support, we wanted to draw on Pearson’s experience of creating educational products for young people around the world. So our partnership with Save the Children also includes research on improving the delivery of education in conflict-affected settings. We have involved a team of ethnographers, local Jordanian researchers, Save the Children, Pearson curriculum experts, learning and UX [user experience] designers, to understand the challenges Syrian and Jordanian families are facing – especially the obstacles their children face related to education – then used those findings to develop product and program design concepts.

Refugees Deeply: Which results from Pearson’s work with refugees to date are you most proud of?

Fallon: Last year, I spent a few days visiting the Save the Children educational centers for out-of-school children in Amman. Despite the most difficult circumstances that these displaced people were going through, I saw a surprising sense of hope and optimism, born out of the belief that education would be the path to a better life. Listening to young people, their parents and teachers talk about their experiences made a huge impression on me.

Refugees Deeply: What challenges has the Every Child Learning initiative faced?

Fallon: The biggest issue for us was picking the right “problem” to address. When we first started our conversations with Save the Children, we wanted to focus where we could be most effective and have the most impact. But to get started, we had to make choices: For example, do we pilot in refugee camps or host communities in towns and cities? Do we develop interventions for preschool, primary or secondary-aged children? Do we target children, parents or teachers?

To make these decisions, we worked collaboratively with Save the Children to really assess the situation on the ground in Jordan, and to understand the needs, barriers and opportunities for serving refugee communities. Learning does not happen in a vacuum – it is affected by social, political, cultural and other dynamics. Determining what was possible and most likely to make a difference was crucial.

Refugees Deeply: What do you think more companies should know about supporting refugee education?

Fallon: There will always come a time when a conflict or emergency ends. However, the effects of missing out on months or even years of education will stay with a child for the rest of his or her life. Despite the challenges conflicts bring, the education of millions of children does not need to stop. Whether due to a war like the Syrian conflict, because they are being persecuted, or due to a natural disaster, we can choose to invest now in refugee education or lose an entire generation.

Like us, other large companies can invest in education, even in difficult conditions, and do so in a number of ways: for school-aged children, for their customers and for their own employees. Businesses have the reach, expertise and resources to make a real difference for people affected by conflict.

Refugees Deeply: What are your main goals for Every Child Learning in the next year?

Fallon: Our team of researchers, curriculum experts, learning and UX designers have been working closely with Save the Children to develop new approaches to improving access to learning. Some interesting approaches are currently being piloted and evaluated; if we can develop new approaches that can be scaled up, we might be able to assist not only Syrian children in Jordan, but many more around the world.

Refugees Deeply: How are you measuring the impact of Pearson’s work with refugees?

Fallon: We are still in the early stages of this work but measuring our impact is incredibly important to us. For the two educational centers that we have funded in Jordan, Save the Children are carrying out monitoring and evaluation. They report regularly on the progress being made in terms of how many children are prepared to transition effectively to formal education, how many transition from informal education to a Ministry of Education-certified and -recognized formal or nonformal education program and on how much the provision of quality education, protection and wellbeing services has been strengthened.

Once we launch the pilot of our new product solution and program, we will conduct robust monitoring and evaluation to measure the impact on learner outcomes in mathematics and literacy, as well as teacher performance. This will enable us to see what is working, what isn’t and then make any necessary changes to positively impact learner outcomes. As we scale up the program, this will continue to be an absolute necessity, to ensure that we continue to help give refugee children a high-quality education, which they also enjoy and find rewarding.

This interview was conducted by email and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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