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Leave schools out of global conflicts

Going into one of our schools a few weeks ago, I came across a powerful exhibition of photographs illustrating child slavery and the use of child soldiers. It was for "child labour awareness week", one of the many weeks and days that international schools are under pressure to commemorate.

Our school has strong United Nations links and a long tradition of humanitarian projects, many focused on children. Over the past four years, we have taken part in school development projects in seven countries, including Nepal and Chile, with students active in fundraising and practical support during holiday visits.

All this philanthropy is great, but to what extent are we confronting pupils with questions about the causes of child poverty and child abuse? With some 77 million children in the world receiving no education, our efforts just scratch the surface. Projects such my school's can too easily be used negatively to salve consciences and divert the developed world from feeling it has any further duty to tackle the real issues.

The gravity of the situation for schools in some parts of the world was brought home to me by a recent report from the United Nations children's fund (Unesco), Education under Attack, which surveys the growing number of countries in which teachers and students are regularly murdered, kidnapped and tortured, and where schools are frequently bombed or burnt. The causes of this rise in violence against educational targets are numerous: ethnic tensions; efforts by some groups to prevent the education of girls; attacks, in civil wars, on teachers as community leaders.

To end this violence, Unesco's main recommendation is that we get across the idea that schools, like hospitals, are "sanctuaries" and that to attack them is an affront on our most fundamental values. Schools should be seen as a resource for an entire national community and a symbol of its unity, however diverse it might be. The problem is that schools sometimes differ from this ideal. The challenge is to make them more accessible so that they can be taken out of the political, religious and ethnic disputes that divide societies.

Unesco's recommendation suggests a general move in the direction of the Swiss and French model of the school as a lay and civic space in which particular allegiances are put aside. As those of us who live and work in Switzerland and France know only too well, the reality of this model can sometimes be quite different from its rhetoric, yet it is still a powerful model that almost certainly offers the best hope for taking schools out of the many conflicts that plague our world.

Nicholas Tate

is director-general of the International School of Geneva, Switzerland

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