“It seems hardly surprising that the focus for many has been on improving access [to basic needs], however, there is a strong argument to be made for including education as part of the basic-level response…”

Up to 10,000 refugees, including children and unaccompanied teenagers, currently live in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France. Education of refugees has become a priority of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in recent years but with a lack of international agency involvement and government support at the Calais camp, it is dedicated volunteers who are leading initiatives to train, educate and support its residents.

A major hurdle in supporting the needs of the refugees is a lack of permanent structures at the camp, an issue which the organisation School Bus Project has cleverly addressed. The group turns old buses into mobile education centres capable of providing education to over 800 people at a time. Each bus contains all the equipment needed to create a pop-up school, including teaching resources, books, stationery supplies and stackable seating.

Run by a group of teachers, education specialists and doctors the School Bus Project is collaborating with a group called Children of Calais to send a bus to the Calais Jungle camp. Kate McAllister, the project’s founder, talks to the IPF about the project.

Can you tell us a little bit about how the idea for the school bus project came about?

I have been teaching in Brighton and Hove for the past 15 years and am now an education consultant. I have also been involved in collecting, sorting and sending aid to Syrian refugees in Iraq for the past year or so. In August I contacted Ali Ceesay who runs an organisation called Children of Calais, which supports children living at Calais’ “Jungle” refugee camp.

We talked about the situation in the camps in Calais and Ali described how many of the young men in the camp are actually boys aged 12-19, many of whom are unaccompanied. She told me how much of each day is spent queuing for food, clothing, water – everything, and my experience as a teacher has taught me that dead time spent queuing can be soul destroying.

I decided that by using my educational experience and networks I could send pop-up schools to the camps so wherever people were congregating, learning could take place.

I found a double decker bus for £3,600 on eBay and started a campaign to raise enough funds to buy it. Two months later we had a whole team in place and dozens of amazing volunteers contributing their time and ideas to the project.

Did you face any difficulties in setting up the project?

There were many obstacles to providing aid in Calais.  There are very few NGOs working there, so there is no formal coordination of aid. There are a few grass-roots charities run by self-funded volunteers, but they are swamped.

Permanent structures are not allowed in the camp, so we would have nowhere to store anything and no networks through which to distribute the resources. This is where the idea of a mobile learning centre came from.

Will the bus travel to other refugee camps across Europe?

We will begin in Calais to run our pilot project.  From here we hope to be able to scale up and send buses to wherever there is a need.  I will go myself with the first bus and stay in Calais for the duration of the six-month pilot.  We will then recruit teams for each subsequent bus.

Why is education in the camps so important?

The UNHCR and governments around the world talk about three ‘durable solutions’ to addressing rising refugee populations: voluntary repatriation to the country of origin, local integration into the asylum country or resettlement to a third country. However, these solutions are very rarely realized and refugees instead find themselves in unstable, unsafe situations of displacement for long periods of time – with limited access to basic services, including education and scarce employment opportunities.

The refugees living in the ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais are no exception. It seems hardly surprising that the focus for many has been on improving access to water, health, nutrition, and shelter, however, there is a strong argument to be made for including education as part of the basic-level response to better match the needs of the refugees in camp.

Not only is education an enabling right through which other rights can be realised, but research demonstrates this is a priority for refugees themselves, because it is viewed by them as a driver for change that they own.

the bus being renovated

The bus being renovated.

What would you ultimately like to see achieved from this project?

The objective of this project is to support the development of innovative and inclusive educational spaces for Calais refugees that are responsive to their needs and capacities, and to the changing dynamics of the camp environment.

Using an action research approach, our idea was to convert a school bus into a mobile school that not only houses classrooms, but also serves as a basecamp for safe storage and the recharging of pop-up schools.

It houses lessons-in-a-box that can be transported to different parts of the camp and mobile digital technology resources that open up individual virtual learning spaces. It’s also an access point for educational resources needed by the schools that have already opened up in camp.

Through the School Bus Project and our team of volunteers, we will be supporting mobile educational activities in four key areas–psychosocial support and protection, basic skills, job skills and teacher training and support.

What do you feel the camps lack most and how will the buses change the lives of residents?

The camps lack the most basic of requirements.

There isn’t enough shelter or warmth, electricity, running water, sewerage or enough food and clothing.

There are educational structures springing up – including the Good Chance Theatre (the Dome), the Jungle Books Library and a few schools – and we will work with volunteers already in camp to support learning in any way we can.

To find out more about the School Bus Project, visit their website, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.