Study: Palestinian Refugee Students Attending UN Schools Achieve Above-Average Results

Nesreen Barakat/ UNRWA Archives

November 12, 2014 – Palestinian students attending United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools for refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan are achieving higher-than-average results in international assessments and outperforming public school students by one additional year of learning, despite the challenging and adverse circumstances they live under.

A new World Bank report, Learning in the Face of Adversity: The UNRWA Education Program for Palestine Refugees, highlights how a resilience approach that includes effective classroom practices of teachers, strong school leadership, assessments and shared accountability for learning, can support adaptability and performance in high-risk contexts.

UNRWA’s educational system, one of the largest non-governmental school systems in the Middle East with 500,000 refugee students each year, utilizes a school-family-community partnership to create a culture of learning that recognizes the vulnerable environment the children live in and promotes collaboration amongst the school, the teacher, the parent and the community all focusing on student achievement and well-being.

Key findings of the study include:

1.     UNRWA selects, prepares, and supports its education staff to pursue high learning outcomes. UNRWA teachers’ colleges attract the best high school graduates to enroll free of charge and with guaranteed employment. In addition, UNRWA teachers are provided with explicit standards regarding what students must know and receive guidance on how to achieve these outcomes. UNRWA also requires classroom experience (built into the curriculum at their teachers’ colleges) and a mandatory two-year intensive training program focused on classroom instruction after they are hired.

2.     Time-on-task is high in UNRWA schools, and this time is used effectively. The proportion of time spent on learning activities in UNRWA schools compares favorably with successful systems in developed countries. UNRWA schools appear to use this time to engage students through confidently led collaborative activities, discussions, and assignments, all promoting greater student participation. In the West Bank/Gaza, for example, most of the teachers’ classroom time is dedicated to teaching.

3.     UNRWA schools have reduced management layers and a world-class assessment and accountability system. UNRWA evaluation systems include classroom observations and other criteria that are rigorous and frequent. Professional development and performance evaluations are requirements to remain in the teaching profession within the UNRWA system, with incentives for good performance and sanctions for poor performance.

4.     UNRWA schools are part of a wider community and culture of learning that supports the child and ensures that the education received is meaningful and relevant. The sense of community appears to be strengthened by the fact that UNRWA teachers originate from the same at-risk population, are part of the same communities as students, and have themselves been through the UNRWA system. In sharing these difficult living situations, teachers are accessible role models for their students, providing them not only with academic guidance but socio-emotional support. 

" Our community is interested in and appreciates learning. The school ensures the students like going there and enjoy the learning that happens. The goal of the school is to create well-educated students. My family also has a big role in learning, and they will be happy when I finish my learning and graduate from the university with high grades. "

Female Student


UNRWA’s performance in an adverse context (occupation, armed conflict, restricted movement, and protracted displacement) presents important lessons for other school systems. Specifically, the effective classroom practices of teachers, strong school leadership, sound assessment system, and shared accountability for learning are strong features. Equally important is recognizing the risks and vulnerabilities that students face and fostering relevant interactions across school and community actors to support learning and protection of students in such challenging contexts.