Faith schools can help bridge gaps in divided communities

Mon, Jun 18, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Ballycastle school link shows how faith schools can draw on the best in their religious traditions, writes TONY BLAIR

‘NO POPERY on the rates.” That was the cry that went up in Britain over a century ago when Catholics sought the same government support for faith schools received by the established Anglican Church.

It was the turn of Hindus and Muslims to seek support when I was prime minister.

Looking back, it was not a hard decision, more a simple matter of fairness. Provided the schools followed the national curriculum, and were up to standard, they should be afforded the same support as Anglicans and Catholics.

Religious freedom did not depend on whether you were a minority or a majority religion. It was a right, not a privilege. Nonetheless, I would not claim that promotion of faith schools was a popular demand or not. And it was sometimes contentious.

Whenever the topic of faith schools came up it would not be long before Northern Ireland was mentioned. Weren’t the roots of the Troubles down to the children of different faiths being separated in different schools? There was even a claim from those who were adamant that the conflict “wasn’t really to do with religion”. Strange how many people behaved as if it was.

Schooling can divide communities. Think of the pivotal role of schools in desegregation in the US. That much of the argument is valid. But it is not the religious tradition, prioritised in affiliation of staff and students, that matters, but how each tradition is interpreted in the teaching and the life of the school.

Does it instil respect and understanding, an open mind, open to inquiry, at ease with diversity, ready to learn more about other faiths? Or does it create a closed mind, a mindset vulnerable to fear, distrust and coercion, a world where “error has no rights”? In short is it good religion or bad religion?

I believe the overwhelming number of our faith schools fall into the first category. They provide students with the skills to live in a pluralist society without the relativism of imagining that the truth claims of the different faiths do not matter.

Many of our secular schools offer the same skills, though I sometimes think they have a more difficult task. The gift is to help young people escape from what the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, writing about “the new religious intolerance” – intolerance of religion – recently dubbed a world of “whatever”.

Religious and civic educational formation is a vital task. People invariably sort themselves out into monocultural groups in times of conflict. They are likely to do so prior to violent conflict and remain segregated afterwards. The cascade effect of frightened people leaving a housing estate or a street can be startlingly rapid. How people see each other is critical, and it depends on how they are brought up to see each other.

Reintegration of divided communities is a matter of generations, not a quick fix, a marathon not a sprint. When it comes to peace-building some of the best long-distance runners have trained in Northern Ireland. I’ve learnt a lot from them. Not least how dealing with history and geography is a big part of the problem in conflicts. The little town of Ballycastle can testify to that.

I discovered that bridges in Northern Ireland – I’m thinking of the bridge that separated “Derry” from “Londonderry” – can just as easily divide people as join them. All round the world, bridges can turn into closely guarded frontiers. Ballycastle bridge was another – smaller – example, though there was nothing small about the suffering inflicted on the two communities by the bombs, killings and civil disorder accompanying marches.

On one side of the bridge lay the Cross and Passion, a Catholic school; on the other Ballycastle High, a mainly Protestant school.

Led by two outstanding religious education teachers the two schools tentatively began to get together in the late 1960s on a very informal basis. In the 1990s, through “Curriculum 2000” it became a much more formal and structured process.

Through the shared education programme funding, the collaboration has expanded beyond post-16-year-old students to include younger pupils studying for their GCSE exams. They now have a joint school choir and rugby team.

My faith foundation got involved in both schools through its Faith to Faith programme, which is now working in 18 countries.

It is a classroom-to- classroom modular course, internet-mediated, building respect and understanding between different faiths. We have become increasingly aware of how helpful it can be in post-conflict situations.

The story of how the two schools came together across the Ballycastle bridge is being told today in a video put together by the students of the two schools. It shows what two religious education teachers with support and vision can do to heal the wounds of a divided community.

Above all it shows the way in which faith schools can draw on the best in their traditions in preparing young people for the religiously and culturally pluralist world of today.

Tony Blair, a former British prime minister, is founder and patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

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