A question of faith: Tony Blair wants the world’s children to talk religion

Author: By Hilary Wilce

Even some of those in the Foundation’s unlabelled offices (“we have to be careful about security”) near the American Embassy in London admit privately that the name can be a hindrance, giving people the wrong idea about what they are doing. They emphasise repeatedly that, although Tony Blair is a Catholic convert, the Foundation’s aim is to bring young people “of every faith, and of none” together to generate tolerance and understanding.

“This is not about convincing anyone that a particular path is right,” says Annika Small, education director. “It’s talking about faith, and about what religions have to say about global issues. There are four billion people of faith in the world, and for many it is central to how they live their lives.”

In one school where the Foundation’s schools’ programme is being tried out, Jo Malone, director of personal, social, health and economic understanding, says firmly, “Whether or not you are religious, everyone has faith in something. It might be in humanity, or in people, or in hope, but you would have to have faith in something, or else you’d be a very sad person indeed.”

At her school, Westhoughton Technology College, on the outskirts of Bolton, a group of 10 Year Nine students last year helped to pioneer the programme, Face to Faith. After a number of in-school workshops on peace and conflict, they travelled to London for a three-way video conference with a school in Palestine and a school in India ? plus a surprise guest, Tony Blair.

For Steven Boardman, 14, the conference “showed how faith can bring peace, and how we can learn from each other’s faiths.” Dnayama Chisanga, 14, adds: “And we were hearing things from an actual viewpoint, not just what the media tell us.”

Of these 10 pupils, only two profess an active ? Christian ? faith, but all found the programme interesting, and were struck by how the Palestinian pupils were more passionate than the others in discussing peace. “You could tell by their tone of voice and what they said,” says Rebecca Pimblett, 14. “But we all shared the same ideas and had similar attitudes,” says Ashley Calow, 13.

Yet isn’t this essentially platitudinous? Don’t all young people say they want peace when brought together to promote international understanding?

“I would hope that future conferences would be much more edgy,” says Malone. “This one was quite stage-managed because it was the launch, and there was a lot of media attention.” She also hopes future conferences will allow more time for children to get comfortable with each other before getting stuck in to the nitty-gritty of specific, and possibly sensitive, issues. “Things about human rights, about women’s rights could be really interesting.”

It is clear when her students lapse into an informal discussion with her about whether there can ever be a “just war” that they have plenty to say about moral and faith issues and could, under the right circumstances, hold a discussion of real value with students in other countries.

Schools enrolling for the programme can arrange video conferences with fellow schools around the world. Or they can sign up for a particular time slot and see which other schools are available. They need only simple equipment as the technical side is managed for them. Any fees charged ? at present, the pilot programme is free ? will be modest, so there is huge potential for developing a global web of classroom contacts.

“Pupils might have access to a lot of reading, or a lot of materials, but this direct link between young people doesn’t happen very often,” says Annika Small. “It is so important to increase inter-faith understanding and respect, and our aim is to get young people to reflect on what their beliefs are, and to learn to express them with sensitivity and respect.”

While UK pupils are already taught about other religions, she points out, this does not necessarily happen elsewhere. She quotes a student in the US who thought that everyone in the world believed in Jesus Christ. She also stresses the great impact on students of hearing Canadian pupils list their main daily concerns as “what’s for lunch, where’s my backpack, and when’s the next Nintendo game coming out”; compare this with Palestinian pupils, whose main worry might be “I hope my friend gets home safely today.”

“But the video links are only a small part of it,” says Jo Malone. There is a programme of international teacher links and training, and she is helping to write a databank of teacher resources, suggesting ways to explore a range of issues from climate change, through poverty, to freedom of expression.

This autumn, the programme will be working with 150 schools in 12 countries, linking 13- and 14-year-olds, and offering course materials for 11- to 16-year-olds. In the UK, these materials fit easily into RE and citizenship lessons, and can be adapted for use with youth groups outside school.

For schools in other countries, particularly in the developing world, the opportunity to get hold of first-class resources, learn about methods of informal and co-operative learning, and talk directly to pupils from all over the globe, will be highly unusual and likely to have a greater impact than in Western countries. This is particularly as, when teachers in these countries get bogged down in bureaucratic problems with their ministries of education, as can easily happen, Tony Blair’s high profile will almost certainly be able to help sort out problems faster.

Danish Jatoi, principal at the City’s School, Bhit Shah, in Pakistan, believes that Face to Faith should be able to make students into global citizens. “It is a great opportunity for Pakistani students to understand the role of faith in today’s world by learning from those of diverse world-views,” he says. “We hope for better religious harmony and dialogue through Face to Faith.”

At Westmount Charter School in Calgary, Canada, Peter Dziuba, director of technology, says: “Now we can have discussions with students in the Middle East, South and South-east Asia and learn directly about the role of faith in their lives and communities, along with other schools in North America and the UK, without having to make the journey physically.”

Critics, such as the British Humanist Association and the Accord Coalition, which campaigns to end religious discrimination in staffing and admissions, have been quick to point out the irony of inter-faith understanding being promoted by a former prime minister who expanded faith schools in his own country to the detriment, they believe, of community cohesion. “We hope that Tony Blair’s recent work in this area has led him to think afresh about how inclusive admissions and a broad RE curriculum can benefit children and communities, whatever their beliefs,” says Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Accord’s chairman.

“We want to nurture and help a new generation to deal with difference,” says Annika Small. “Our objective is peace in the world.” Who, ultimately, could argue with that?

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