Blue Sky Thinking Redesigns Refugee Education: A Case Study in Social Entrepreneurship - RSA

Blue Sky Thinking Redesigns Refugee Education: A Case Study in Social Entrepreneurship


  • Picture of Richard C C Davies FRSA
    Richard C C Davies FRSA

Richard C Davies FRSA reflects on the impact of previous RSA Engage pitchers and social entrepreneur, Sky School using technology to provide accessible education to refugees.

As the International Baccalaureate celebrates 50 years of inspiring global engagement, open-mindedness and a commitment to lifelong learning, its Director General Siva Kumari believes that its expanding network will build an ever stronger community that seeks to create a better world (IBO, 2017a). Early IB influencers, such as Kurt Hahn, recognised the opportunity to develop a transformative, progressive curriculum that augments traditional elements, such as developing inquiring and caring students, with an explicit emphasis on taking action to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect (IBO, 2017b). Hahn believed that there are three pedagogical approaches through which such a curriculum could be delivered: you can preach at them (persuasion); you can say ‘you must volunteer’ (compulsion); and you can tell them ‘you are needed’ (Alchin, 2017). It is essentially, this final approach which underpins the IB mission and places the onus on future ethical leaders and creative entrepreneurs to ‘carry the beacon of hope and incite positive change for the next generation’ (IBO, 2017a).


Sky School exemplifies the next generation of ethical leaders and creative social entrepreneurs seeking to incite change. In 2015, 50 million children were uprooted from their homes, of which 27 million were a result of violence and insecurity (Unicef, 2018). Whether these uprooted children are refugees, migrants or internally displaced, every child has the right to an education, but there are 27 million children of primary and secondary age in 24 conflict areas without access to education, and less than 25% of refugee youth have access to secondary education (Unicef, p7, 2018). Empathising with frustrated young displaced learners denied access to education, Polly Akhurst and Mia Eskelund Pedersen were inspired to tackle this perceived injustice and took direct action by drawing upon their experience in international education to establish Sky School in order to close the gap in quality secondary education provision for young displaced people (Martin & Osberg, p6, 2007; Sky School, 2018a). It is precisely such direct action that characterises the entrepreneur who, inspired by the opportunity, seeks to realise their creative solution to overcoming the barriers and challenges that arise and act to maintain the status quo (Martin & Osburg, p6, 2007). Moreover, it is predicated on having such ‘alertness’ in the first place which economist Israel Kirzner argues is the entrepreneur’s most critical ability (Baumol, p2, 2006).


In seeking to articulate the difference between entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, however, Dees (p6, 2018) argues that, for the latter, the social mission is ‘explicit and central’ and that mission related impact, as opposed to wealth creation, becomes the central criterion. Against a backdrop of real terms funding cuts to secondary education in UK government schools (Sibieta, 2018), achieving the Sky School mission, ‘A Global High School for Refugees’, at scale does not raise the prospect of wealth creation; indeed their value proposition specifically targets a neglected and highly disadvantaged population that lacks the financial means of political clout to achieve the transformative benefit on its own (Sky School, 2018; Martin & Osberg, p8, 2007).


Moreover, those personal characteristics in a successful entrepreneur so crucial to the process of innovation are abundant in Sky School’s co-founders (Martin & Osberg, p5, 2007). Rather than tinkering around the edges and refining existing systems and structures, entrepreneurs think creatively and eschew these in favour of finding wholly new ways of approaching the problem (Martin & Osberg, p6, 2007). Taking a pioneering and transformative approach to education that resonates with those earlier IB influencers, Sky School has sought to develop a curriculum, delivered through a ‘new educational model’, predicated on blended learning, which harnesses the content rich aspects of an online course with the power of physical learning communities (Sky School, 2018a). Sky School works with project partners such as the UNHCR Refugee Camp in Kakuma, Kenya, to facilitate modules, with students completing 60% of the course through face-to-face seminars and the remaining 40% through its app (Sky School, 2018a; 2017a).


In order to truly be considered a social enterprise however, such a learning programme needs to be designed to achieve at scale, without which it is unlikely to lead to a new ‘equilibrium’ in the education landscape (Martin & Osberg, p11, 2007). The combination of a strong technology platform, together with the outsourcing of course facilitation to local aid groups, alert to the particular demands of their learners, means that Sky School does possess this transformational potential to scale up and re-calibrate this equilibrium beyond the confines of a particular camp. The key here, however, is persistence and seeking to engage in a process of continuous innovation and learning; investing time in developing a course in the first instance before scaling it up is invaluable (Dees, P9, 2001). The first module to be delivered was, appropriately enough, itself on Social Entrepreneurship and was piloted with a small group of refugees in Athens with the feedback used to refine the second iteration of the module (Sky School, 2018a).


But what kind of knowledge, skills and understanding constitutes ‘Lifeworthy learning’ relevant to refugee learners, in order to convince them that ‘they are needed’ and, given the limited financial resources, how do you design this? (Perkins, 2016). Once more, Sky School has demonstrated its entrepreneurial flair by dispensing with traditional models of discrete subject blocks and embraced design thinking to generate a learning programme that empowers these displaced young people to proactively affect change in their communities. A module on Peacebuilding is currently underway and will be followed with modules on Global Politics, Identity, and Arts and culture (UWCSEA, 2018a). Exploring knowledge that can be applied beyond national borders, building skills, and developing an understanding of how these can be used to shape attitudes and inform direct action, is an effective blueprint for realising Hahn’s objective of creating a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect, peaceful co-existence and sustainable development for the future of the human race (Hill, 2012; IBO, 2017a).


The late Jo Cox MP noted that: ‘we are far more united than the things that divide us’ (UK Parliament, 2016). Against an increasingly uncertain geopolitical landscape, and the rise of populism, the importance of international education that transcends national boundaries and focuses more on that which brings us together has never been so important. With the next generation of ethical leaders and social entrepreneurs demonstrating that the understanding from their IB education ‘that they are needed’ has endured, those initial key influential educators can take comfort that they have inspired a generation to take action in order to help realise a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect; for the next 50 years at least, the ‘beacon of hope’ is in safe hands.








Alchin, Nick (2017) ‘School Should be in the business of adaptive work’, August 13th, 2017. Accessed 30/06/18,


Baumol, William J. (2006) Return of the Invisible Men: The Microeconomic Value Theory of Inventors and Entrepreneurs, Allied Social Science Associations Conference. Accessed 20/07/18


Dees, J. Gregory (2001) ‘The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship’. Duke University: Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Accessed 14/06/18


Hill, Ian (2012) ‘Evolution of Education for International Mindedness’, Journal of Research in International Education Vol 11(3) pp245-261


IBO, 2017a ‘The IB is turning 50!’ June 2nd, 2017. Accessed 30/06/18;


IBO (2017b) ‘The history of the IB’. Accessed 30/06/18;


Instagram (2017) @SkySchool_World, 17th December 2017. Accessed 25th July, 2018


Kirner, Israel (1979) Perception, Opportunity and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press cited in Baumol, William J. (2006) Return of the Invisible Men: The Microeconomic Value Theory of Inventors and Entrepreneurs, Allied Social Science Associations Conference. Accessed 20/07/18


Martin, Roger L. and Osberg, Sally (2007) ‘Social Entrepreneurship: The Case For Definition’. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2007. Accessed 14/06/18


Perkins, David N. (2016) ‘Lifeworthy Learning’, Education Leadership, March 2016 Vol. 73 (6)


Save the Children (2017) @SavetheChildren 18th September, 2017. Accessed 27/07/18



Sibeta, Luke (2018) School Funding Falls Faster in England than in Wales, 12th July 2018. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies. Accessed 20/07/18


Sky School (2017a) ‘Announcing our New Technology Partnership, 30th August 2017. Accessed 20/07/18

Sky School (2017b) ‘Meet Daniel’. Accessed 20/07/18

Sky School (2018a) ‘About us’. Accessed 14/06/18

Sky School (2018b) Home Page. Accessed 14/06/18


Twitter (2017) @Skyschool_world 3rd September, 2017. Accessed 25/07/18


Twitter (2018) @UWC_Maastricht 17th June, 2018. Accessed 27/07/18


UK Parliament (2016) Jo Cox Maiden Speech in the House of Commons, 17th June, 2016. Accessed 27/07/18


UNHCR (2016) Missing Out: Refugee Education in Crisis, 15th September, 2016. Accessed 20/07/18


Unicef (2018) Education Uprooted; New York, September 2017. Accessed 30/06/18


UWCSEA (2018a) ‘The Sky’s The Limit’, UWCSEA Perspectives. Accessed 20/07/18

UWCSEA (2018b) Triple A Plus Singapore: UWCSEA. Accessed online 20/07/18

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