Who gets to attend school, and for how many-years? In many parts-of-the world, these are questions without a straight-forward answer and they grow far more complicated in the context of refugee education.

A new case study of decision-making in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, examines the problem. Set within the framework of a monthly meeting between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO partners, the case demonstrates the difficulty of providing schooling to an ever-growing, under-resourced, and possibly impermanent population, and it poses questions about the role of education in refugee camps. It’s one of a series of new refugee-centered teaching cases co-authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education researcher Sarah Dryden-Peterson.


The Kakuma case, co-authored by Michelle Bellino, Ed.D.’14, of the University of Michigan, describes how a previous policy emphasis on access to education in the developing world resulted in large numbers of students completing school without basic literacy or math skills. As a result, the UNHCR’s most recent educational strategy emphasizes access alongside quality, protection, and sustainability of educational programs. UNCHR now frames education not only as a service to provide, but also as a “tool of protection and an essential element of any durable solution for refugees.”

But with the new strategic direction, one particular problem continues to vex: how to provide quality education to all in resource-constrained settings.


Kakuma, a large camp in northwestern Kenya, received more than 20,000 refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan, Somalia, and other countries in 2012 alone. These numbers have increased, with the population of Kakuma spiking to 125,000. Many of the inhabitants are long-term refugees, with little hope of returning to their home countries.

Providing an education to each child in Kakuma is hugely challenging. At the time of Dryden-Peterson and Bellino’s study, in a single month 800 more children enrolled in primary schools that were already serving 10,000 children. With the population continuing to rise, many leaders realized that building more schools was no longer an effective option. UNHCR had built fifty additional classrooms in Kakuma, and within one year they had all been filled beyond capacity.

To increase access, UNHCR introduced a “double shift” in primary school, in which children came to school either in the morning or the afternoon. But while this innovation increased primary enrollment by 65 percent, it compromised quality. Many classes had one teacher serving 150 students. Without enough space for desks or chairs, students knelt on the floor, and few had textbooks. And those students not sitting in the front rows could barely hear or see the teacher.

This struggle between access and quality intensified at the secondary level. With only four secondary schools to serve tens of thousands of children, the schools used a cutoff score on an entrance exam to determine which students would enroll. The selective entry avoided many of the problems existing at the primary level, such as overcrowded classrooms, damaged infrastructure, and overwhelmed teachers. In other words, the students in the secondary school received a higher quality education.

But this selective entry had a clear downside. “The cutoff score was essentially arbitrary in terms of academic performance on a national scale,” one of the partners in the UNHCR meeting realized. “It was merely a decision about allocating resources, and in this case the decision favored quality for some over access for all.”


Teaching cases are instructional tools aiming to place learners at the center of real-life dilemmas. This case does just that, introducing deeper questions about the purpose of education in Kakuma, and in refugee camps in general. Is the goal to support the success of individual students right now, or to improve educational systems that will, eventually, support all students?

In Kakuma, by limiting the amount of students permitted to attend secondary school, the educators were ensuring that those few students would receive a higher quality education. And, in the long run, those same students would likely become teachers themselves in the camp, increasing educational access for future children.