What can we learn from new educational programmes as they forge their own paths? Part 1
What can we learn from new educational programmes as they forge their own paths? Part 1
What can we learn from new educational programmes as they forge their own paths? Part 1

“Amala” means hope. Could you, should you dare, to hope for a better education for those who have had their lives disrupted?

CIS staff photo of Chris Durbin
Mary Powell

Introduction by Chris Durbin, CIS Associate Director of School Support & Evaluation & Mary Powell, CIS School Support & Evaluation Officer

A project was conceived in 2017 in response to the gap in quality education provision for displaced youth in several communities worldwide. Amala (formerly known as Sky School) not only delivers educational programmes to their refugee communities, it fulfils its Arabic name by delivering hope for the future for many who, just a few years before, had very few opportunities.



We had the privilege of visiting them in Kenya and Jordan.

Amala Education is an organisation forging its own path, making great strides, and giving us plenty to learn from, whether that relates to commitment to global citizenship and intercultural learning in challenging contexts or whether it is in defining strong beliefs and commitment to high-quality learning and then designing curriculum accordingly.

On a 2022 visit, we witnessed a commitment to learning by young adults who must often support their relatives as well as study.

In engaging with this blog, we invite you to ask these questions of yourselves:

  • Where do you go to get your inspiration for school improvement or curriculum development?
  • What impact are you making on young people whose lives have been disrupted or who have been deprived of an educational journey?
  • What does this story prompt you to do for your school community related to global citizenship and life readiness?

With a mission to ‘use the power of education to transform the lives of refugees, their communities and the world,’ Amala Education has developed ‘the first international high school curriculum for young people who are displaced. They also offer Changemaker Courses in peacebuilding, ethical leadership, and social entrepreneurship.

These courses are a big step towards the nurturing of educated young people to work within NGOs and those who will go on to further and higher education. Many students were studying in Syria or South Sudan [to name just two places] when their educational opportunities were cut short. Some have been able to show potential through their refugee-camp primary and secondary education. Amala believes that education for these students should not stop here. 

There’s a lot to be inspired by in their community. So, we’ve split this into a two-part blog series to learn about their successes, how these were achieved, and hear about their plans as they strive to persuade more of us to contribute to the lives of young people who don’t have the opportunities of many.


In this first blog post, the co-founders of Amala, Polly Akhurst and Mia Eskelund focus on the themes of collaboration done well and alternative approaches and pathways to high-quality education.




Amala’s achievements are largely due to our highly collaborative approaches throughout our communities. Here, we describe the key components and approaches we have used to create and sustain such highly collaborative communities.



Establishing collaborative norms

From day one, we aimed to foster a highly collaborative and inclusive culture and community where team members, students and partners feel valued and increase their sense of agency.

The use of collaborative norms throughout the organisation set the tone of our culture, from paraphrasing to giving each other time to speak by pausing and being mindful of creating inclusive behaviours.

We use our collaborative norms in all meetings. We often begin by reflecting on our behaviours. We also use them in our facilitation practices, in class with students and when we interact with each other asynchronously via email.

We work remotely across several continents and time zones, and our collaborative norms foster a deliberate approach to efficient communication and collaboration and building an inclusive Amala community. 

Collaborative course design

Refugee youth and people with experience of displacement are involved in Amala’s course design. When we developed the Amala High School Diploma curriculum, we asked more than 300 refugee learners what learning they wanted and needed.

We held ‘curriculum hackathons’, weekend-long events which brought together the expertise of educators alongside refugee learners. Not only did these hackathons enable us to develop a 10-course curriculum in just 12 months, they also ensured we worked ‘with’, not just ‘for’ displaced learners. 

Our challenge was to create a process that would work in every context we brought it to, drawing on leading educational practice and tech sprints and hackathons: and it worked. After all the generative work, something emerges that is simple and elegant—Stuart MacAlpine, Amala’s Founding Director of Education, who helped devise Amala’s curriculum hackathon process.

Collaboration with the community for the community

We have two core programmes; The Amala High School Diploma (the first international high school diploma for displaced youth who have not had the chance to finish school) and Amala Changemaker Courses (10-week courses run through our implementation partners). Our model for both programmes aims to strengthen refugee communities and the local communities around them. We do this in two ways: 

  1. By training and developing facilitators in the places where we work to deliver the High School Diploma & Changemaker Courses. Our facilitators have a deep knowledge of the local context, and many have experienced displacement themselves and understand the challenges our students are facing. Increasingly, our facilitators are Amala Alumni who have their own personal experiences of participating in our programmes. 
  2. Much of the learning at Amala is focused on students applying their learning in their communities. Throughout their studies, students participate in projects to improve their communities in different ways, and we’ve seen some highly impactful examples of this. Sudi, a student from our High School Diploma in Kakuma has devised a project to encourage girls to stay in secondary school by distributing female hygiene supplies. To date she has reached more than 500 girls in schools across Kakuma. Our students view their learning as not only about improving themselves but also the communities around them.

We are looking to strengthen our connections with the local community further, potentially by developing local advisory boards that can enable more community buy-in and trust for the efforts of our students to improve the community around them. (This was a recommendation from our most recent CIS evaluation visit!)


Alternative approaches and pathways to high-quality education

'Our students are instead assessed on their application of learning to real-life situations.'

We offer alternative approaches and pathways to high-quality education and work readiness for displaced youth. So, what distinguishes our approach from what is considered a traditional style of education compared with international schools or Western country contexts?

Although we try to avoid using the word "traditional", let’s say, for now, that traditional means that you sit exams at the end of an approximately two-year-long course. Performance in those exams, and perhaps in other class assessments, determines a grade, and you end up seeing a grade-filled transcript. Our students are instead assessed on their application of learning to real-life situations.



We developed a set of Amala competencies that describe the impact an Amala graduate should have on their own lives and the world around them by the time they finish the programme. Students are therefore assessed on what we consider most important: their ability and will to positively influence their own life and the world around them (we call this ’agency’, and this definition is taken from the OECD’s Education 2030 work).

That’s not to say we don’t think knowledge is important.

On the contrary, knowledge is crucial for agency, and we might assess it formatively during the programme, but knowledge is not what we ‘summatively’ assess. So, where other systems might have a focus on assessing knowledge, we focus on assessing impact.

Our competencies are converted into credits towards the High School Diploma, which feature alongside a portfolio of work on our digital transcript through our partners, the Mastery Transcript Consortium. 

As our High School Diploma alumnus Majd explains, The mastery learning approach I developed while at Amala trained me to focus on solutions instead of problems. While executing diverse projects in various locations, I learned that I could shape my future in accordance with my skills and interests. For example, I created HiRe from scratch—an online recruitment app with a built-in chat for recruiters to connect with job seekers—using React Native and JavaScript. Now I am realizing postsecondary success with ScholaScope, a platform that uses AI to match students like me with postsecondary opportunities that will help them realize their own dreams.1 



A different kind of curriculum

Amala has a very different curriculum from many schools in the international and Western context. It has been chosen based on research (both primary research and secondary research) into the needs of refugee youth and those who have experienced displacement.

We used the research to determine the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that might help students in this unique context to thrive in the world, and we packaged these into themes that our research suggests are important to youth in this context.

For example, the peacebuilding theme's "lifeworthy" goal supports students in building peace in their own lives and communities. It’s an important concept at Amala to support students in learning things that are likely to matter in the life that they lead.

In doing so, students develop a variety of life-worthy knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values that might be transferable to other contexts and goals, such as:

  • knowing a variety of conflict analysis strategies
  • being able to use conflict analysis strategies to plan interventions that build peace
  • developing the attitude of taking responsibility for conflicts when they see them rather than leaving it to others

Amala Peacebuilding Changemaker Course Alumnus, Mut Teny, found the course sharpened his positive mindset leading him to volunteer with Lutheran World Federation, UNHCR Kenya and other agencies that deliver services to refugees with disabilities. Read his story here

Another student who used her experience from our Peacebuilding course is Changemaker Course Alumnus, Ordinance from Cameroon. Read her story here


Two photos of Mut Teny and Ordinance and Amala friends


What also distinguishes our programmes from international schools or Western country contexts is that we accept youth ages 16-25.

This is because many refugee youths may have been travelling from their home country during their high school years, and when they finally ‘settle’ in a place, they may no longer be age eligible for the local system.

As a result, we have many 18+ students who wouldn’t even get a chance to study otherwise through local education systems.

It is important to note that the Amala High School Diploma does not compete with local systems.

Instead, we see it as complementary, offering an alternative for students who cannot access the local system.

In part 2, we hear more from the Amala team about how they are embedding global citizenship, what 21st-century skills look like in their context, and their approaches to recruitment and enrolment.


1 Read the full article here.

Links to more Amala student & alumni stories:


What can we learn from new educational programmes as they forge their own paths? Part 1
  • Global citizenship
What can we learn from new educational programmes as they forge their own paths? Part 1