Syrian refugee children play at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria.

Syrian refugee children play at Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. Photo: Muhammad Hamed

Across the nation over the long summer break Australian parents have bought textbooks and uniforms for their children for the start of the new school year. Meanwhile thousands of miles away in Syria, millions of children face little prospect of continuing their education and returning to school any time soon.

The ongoing war has reversed three decades of educational progress in Syria, a once prosperous nation with a strong education system.

Syria had made significant improvements to access to early education and the quality of basic education and encouraged university students to embark on promising careers in engineering and medicine.

Since the conflict started almost three years ago, at least three million Syrian children have been forced to leave school, while thousands more who are now school-aged have missed out on the chance to enrol.

In Australia, there are just over 9000 schools, less than half that in Syria. However, at least one in five Syrian schools is not operational, having either been destroyed or damaged, or been used for other purposes such as shelter for displaced persons or by the military.

In Australia, the average class comprises 24 students. When I was in Jordan last year, I visited Aqraba, a small community by the Syrian border that has generously taken in thousands of refugees. Class sizes at the local school have ballooned to more than 50.

In order to teach all the Syrian children, class times were reduced from 45 minutes to 30 minutes so the school could work on two shifts - one in the morning for the local Jordanians and another in the afternoon for the Syrians.

Despite their children's education suffering as a result of the influx of Syrians, the local community in Aqraba raised money to ensure Syrian children had the basics for school - a uniform, stationery and a backpack.

This community is not unique. Millions of refugees have streamed into neighbouring countries - including 1.2 million children - and scores of communities like Aqraba are playing host.

This is putting a strain on water, electricity and food, and many host communities are struggling to provide services for child refugees as well as their own young citizens.

Across the region there are shrinking opportunities for an increasingly disenfranchised youth and few chances for young people to make their voices heard. They will be the key to Syria's recovery when the bullets stop flying, and this could further hamper the process.

While many Syrian children are in makeshift schools in surrounding countries, including in Za'atari refugee camp where Save the Children supports more than 120,000 Syrians, millions more are stuck inside Syria struggling to survive each day, let alone contemplating going back to school.

Some of these children have witnessed unimaginable horror - their families being killed in front of them, their schools destroyed and their homes shelled.

This is the fourth year in which Syrian education has been hampered by war. The trauma, the hardships and years of lost education mean we are now at risk of losing the next generation who would lead the rebuilding of Syria once the crisis is over.

To avoid this, Save the Children, with other organisations, is calling for governments, non-government organisations and the public to become champions for the children of Syria to protect a generation from a life of despair, diminished opportunities and broken futures.

Meanwhile, the ongoing peace talks in Switzerland represent the best opportunity yet for progress towards peace. They must not be another failure of the international community to seize the chance to protect Syrian children.

As foreign leaders wrestle with disagreement, the children of Syria are still facing violence in residential areas, schools and hospitals. More than 11,000 have died in this conflict already, 71 per cent of them killed indiscriminately by explosive weapons in residential areas.

A lack of progress at the peace talks will further delay an end to the brutality, and mean more children will miss out on vital schooling, among other things.

We are urging the relevant parties to agree to do three critical things: protect schools and health facilities; prevent the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; and allow life-saving aid to reach children inside Syria.

We must have unfettered humanitarian access to the threemillion internally displaced children and their families and provide vital basic services.

We also need to provide more and better education for Syrian children outside Syria, so communities like Aqraba can cope.

As Australia begins the 2014 school year it is critical we ensure young Syrians also have the same opportunity for education.

We cannot and should not sit back and watch a generation disappear in front of us.

Paul Ronalds is chief executive officer of Save the Children Australia.