Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Giving teachers confidence to engage pupils on beliefs

An innovative scheme to encourage inter-faith dialogue in schools is being backed by former prime minister Tony Blair, writes James Nelson

At a recent forum exploring educational options for the future of Northern Ireland, several influential public figures - including Baroness May Blood - made it clear that the best way forward is for schools to be religion-free zones.

This solution seems tantalising in two ways - in its simplicity and in its ability to unite those from a varied range of political, religious and non-religious positions.

Yet around the world there are many others who see that now, more than ever, is a time to engage our young people with issues of faith, belief and values in an educational environment.

Among them is former prime minister Tony Blair, who is now patron and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This worldwide inter-faith organisation runs a schools programme called Face to Faith. The programme facilitates inter-faith dialogue through video-conferencing and online collaboration with the aim of providing young people with the knowledge and skills needed for meaningful inter- and intra-faith dialogue across a range of cultures. While many people perceive Northern Ireland to be a society saturated with religious language and debate, the reality is that there are very limited opportunities for most of our young people to have dialogue with others of their own age, from different religious or cultural backgrounds, around issues of faith, belief or values.

For this reason, last year I contacted the Blair foundation to ask if, using my influence as an educator, I could help to create an opportunity for schools to learn more about the Face to Faith project.

The end result was that, last month, teachers from eight schools participated in a one-day training event on the project at Stranmillis University College in Belfast.

During the session, the teachers had the rare opportunity to chat with Tony Blair during a video conference. He told the teachers: "Young people have an enormous appetite to learn about others who are different from them" and he emphasised the positive value of enabling pupils to discuss faith issues and beliefs.

Jo Malone, Face to Faith international co-ordinator at the foundation, introduced teachers to the basics of video-conferencing as well as the learning materials and cooperative learning techniques at the heart of the programme.

There were also international contributions from experienced inter-faith facilitators in India and Lebanon who stressed the benefits of Face to Faith, not only for encouraging dialogue and empathy between young people, but helping them to connect with their own faith traditions. In the coming months, the local teachers hope to embed some of the programme within their own classrooms.

It was particularly positive that the launch of Face to Faith in Northern Ireland involved schools from across the range of management-types (Controlled, Maintained and Integrated) and it is hoped that the programme spawns local as well as international collaboration.

Indeed, some of these schools have experience of local collaboration through the Sharing Education Programme and it was apparent from the discussion and interactions on the day that, as a result of such sharing initiatives, many teachers are now comfortable and confident working across boundaries of ethos.

The teachers left, keen to explore ways in which they might engage their pupils in constructive dialogue about faith and beliefs.

I left with the strong impression that a culture of sharing is emerging as an integral aspect of our education system. In both cases I look forward to seeing what the future brings.

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