Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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A Question of Faith: Tony Blair wants the world's children to talk

Published By: The Independent - 06 Aug 2009

Many people find the thought of Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation working in schools uncomfortable. It smacks of religious propaganda, and is tied to the name of a Prime Minister who is remembered for leading the country into a bloody and controversial war.

And even some of those working in the Foundation’s un-labelled offices (“we have to be careful about security”) near the American Embassy in London privately admit that the name can be a hindrance, giving people the wrong idea about what they are doing.

They stress repeatedly that, although Tony Blair is himself a devout Catholic covert, 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 one particular path is right,” explains Annika Small, director of education. “It’s about 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 completely central to how they lives their lives.”

And in one UK school where the Foundation’s schools’ programme is being trialled, Jo Malone, director of personal, social, health and economic understanding education, 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 pioneer the programme, Face to Faith. After a number of in-school workshops on peace and conflict they travelled down to London for a three-way video conference between themselves, 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.” “And we were hearing things from an actual viewpoint,” says Dnayama Chisanga, 14, “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 seemed more passionate than the other students 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 Jo 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.”

And 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-based issues and could, under the right circumstances, hold a discussion of real value with students in other countries.

Schools who sign up for the programme can access fellow schools around the world and arrange video conferences with them. Alternatively, they can sign up for a particular time slot and then see which other schools are available. They only need simple equipment, the technical side is all managed for them, and any fees charged – as 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.”

And while UK pupils are already taught other religions, she points out, this does not necessarily happen elsewhere. She quotes a student in the United States 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 Ninetendo game coming out” compared to Palistinian pupils whose main worry might be “I do hope my friend gets home safely today.”

“But the video links are only a small part of it,” stresses Jo Malone. There is a programme of international teacher links and training, and she is helping to write a large bank of teacher resources, suggesting ways to explore a range of belief-based 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 tailor easily with RE and citizenship lessons, and can be adapted for use with youth groups outside school.

But for schools in other countries, particularly in the developing world, the opportunity to access first-class resources, learn about methods of informal and cooperative learning, and talk directly to pupils from other parts of the globe will be highly unusual and likely to have a much greater impact than in Western countries. Particularly since, 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 name will almost certainly be able to help sort out problems fast.

Already Danish Jatoi, principal at The City’s School, Bhit Shah, in Pakistan, sees that Face to Face “is an excellent programme for young students in Pakistan to make them 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 worldviews. We are hopeful for better religious harmony and dialogue through Face to Faith.”

And 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 Southeast 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 physically make the journey.”

Some critics, such as the British Humanist Association and the Accord Coalition, which campaigns to end religious discrimination in school 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.

“But we want to nurture and help a new generation deal with difference,” says Annika Small. “Our objective is peace in the world.”

And who, ultimately, could argue with that?