Education for Youth?

Out of School
Adolescents and Youth

In emergencies and protracted crisis settings, a disconcerting question arises: Why are so many youth left without certified education? 

Lost OpportunityThe recently published report from NORCAP (part of the Norwegian Refugee Council), “Lost Opportunity: Education for out-of-school youth in emergency and protracted crisis settings," peels back the layers of this challenge, exploring the often-overlooked territory of out-of-school youth.

The genesis of the report arose from a conversation early in 2022 about out-of-school youth between Marc Sommers and Martha Hewison. It subsequently led to the creation of a ‘Core Team’ of expert advisors from INEE and UNHCR (Dean Brooks, Rachel McKinney, Ms. Hewison, and Alessio Baldaccini) and an effort to design a concept note and then secure support for a major new study on the education challenge for out-of-school youth during emergencies and protracted crises.

Across most of that year, the Core Team regularly met with Dr. Sommers to review revised concept notes that he had shared. Ultimately, Maria Sellevold and Frida Paréus of NORCAP joined with Dr. Sommers to support the production of what came to be “Lost Opportunity.” Martha Hewison also introduced Mai Ibrahim Nasrallah to Dr. Sommers. Ms. Nasrallah is the co-author of the report and led research on specific programming. The final piece of the puzzle was forming the Youth Advisory Group to provide advice and guidance (alongside the Core Team). There were six youth and youth expert members: Emma Bonar, Oleksii Druz, Bayan Louis, Ballo Ngomna, Shannon O'Rourke Kasali, and Ritesh Shah.

Three key features informed the research design. First, as the age range sought to include adolescence, puberty, and protection in the mix, a 12-24 age range was used. Second, only education that was certified or provided a pathway to certification was examined. Finally, given the limited documentation about youth and emergency in education (EiE), the research featured extended qualitative interviews with a total of 36 practitioners, including donor officials, experts, and youth. 

“Lost Opportunity” delves into the status of youth education within EiE settings and brings to light a series of vital revelations. From the blurred lines surrounding the youth definition to the enduring preoccupation with primary education, the research sheds light on a landscape that receives little attention and support, even though nearly half of the global out-of-school population are children and youth living in crisis-affected countries. Analysis of gender and education issues revealed a heavy focus on preadolescent girls, far less on female youth, and very little attention paid to the rising disengagement from education among boys and male youth. The study also revealed limited out-of-school youth expertise in the EiE field and a general inability to provide education to youth on the move toward cities. 

Here are some details on the key findings: 

Who are youth? 

The EiE field generally demonstrates a lack of clarity about who youth are or what (in educational terms) they seek. There's a puzzle surrounding the definition of ‘'youth,’ as there is no agreed definition. Instead, youth tend to be squeezed into the child category, positioned far below the priorities and investments reserved for children or overlooked entirely. In addition, EiE professionals were found to know little about those not in their schools, youth in particular. 

The focus for EiE is primary education

Primary education is unquestionably the EiE field’s main area of focus. The research revealed EIE as an emergency-focused field burdened with responsibility, without a prominent profile or sufficient funds, and almost completely absorbed with addressing the urgent educational needs of young children (largely those between the ages of six and 12). Access to vocational and tertiary education is exceptionally limited. Few certified options for those beyond the age of 18 exist.     

Limited levels of youth expertise and investment

There's a scarcity of expertise when it comes to youth. EiE professionals interviewed for this study also underscored the following dynamic: if post-primary education is compared to (or competes against) primary education, it will always lose out. They depicted a field concerned about youth but lacking a roadmap or expertise for how to address their priorities. 

Gender issues

EiE’s pronounced focus on girls’ education often leaves pressing female youth challenges overlooked (such as sanitary napkins and daycare). The research also revealed that there are few efforts to support education for boys and male youth. 

Youth programming trends

The available certified education options for out-of-school youth predominantly revolve around vocational training and accelerated education. They are mainly tailored for the primary level. 

The absence of strategic targeting was notable. As a result, programs that specifically targeted particular at-risk subgroups of out-of-school youth – such as orphans/unaccompanied minors, unmarried mothers, child wives, former combatants, those with disabilities, members of an ethnic or gender minority, those who work, those with alcohol and/or drug abuse issues – were scarce. Adding to the complexity, it was also found that EiE is largely stationary while many youth are mobile. Certified education offerings from EiE agencies tend to concentrate in camps and settlements, inadvertently leaving large numbers of young people underserved after they migrate into urban areas. 

The report ends with 18 substantive and practical recommendations. They are bold because they need to be. Taken together, they serve as a starting point for a collaborative effort to address significant gaps and bring about meaningful change. While the toplines are provided below, the complete report and executive summary (in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish) provide detailed explanations.

Policy recommendations: 

  1. Recognise the inadequate status quo and commit to reform.
  2. Convene a high-level conference (or series of major gatherings) to galvanise EiE commitment to out-of-school youth. 
  3. Dramatically and urgently upgrade expertise on out-of-school, at-risk youth in the EiE field.
  4. Promote learning about education and out-of-school youth. 
  5. Target key youth subgroups.
  6. Find out how to deliver education to youth.
  7. Transform the donor-driven emphasis on girls’ education into strategic, gendered support.
  8. Maintain regular engagements between EiE stakeholders and education authorities about out-of-school youth challenges. 
  9. Develop an adaptable definition of ‘youth’ for the EiE field.
  10. Commit to the disaggregation of data by age, gender, disability and education level.
  11. Apply the IASC Guidelines on Working with and for Young People in Humanitarian and Protracted Crises.

Programme recommendations: 

  1. Pilot adaptable, youth-centred approaches to education.
  2. Strategically refine and expand the engagement process with youth.
  3. Elevate the quality and relevance of preprogramme assessments.
  4. Apply a gender lens to all programmes.
  5. Recruit, train and deploy qualified youth as monitoring and evaluation experts. 
  6. Implement bridging programmes.
  7. Initiate and support certification task teams.



Marc Sommers is an award-winning author and an internationally recognised youth and EiE expert. Marc uses trust-based methods to reveal new insights about inequity and exclusion and detail how to cultivate effective policy and programme responses. His work draws deeply from experience in 23 war-affected countries. Marc received his PhD in anthropology from Boston University and currently works as a consultant.

Mai Nasrallah is an experienced programme management specialist, with over 8 years of experience representing donors, NGOs and research institutes in development and humanitarian settings. Mai is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland School of Education and Social Work and holds a Masters in Human Rights from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Martha Hewison has worked for over 20 years in the education sector for international NGOs, donors, and governments in East, West, and Southern Africa with a particular focus on education in conflict and post-conflict contexts. She has expertise in alternative and non-formal education provision for out-of-school children and youth.