Never mind theology – use face-to-face meetings to promote cultural understanding, report tells schools

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Schools should encourage and help pupils to meet their counterparts from different cultural and religious backgrounds, a new report published today recommends.

There should be a “major shift” in education policy, beyond a “multiculturalist emphasis on accommodating difference”, towards “intercultural exchange learning and mutual-respect”, according to the study by charity 3FF (Three Faiths Forum) and think tank LKMco.

“This would shift the agenda away from responding to or protecting specific religions and towards contact, interaction and understanding,” the report argues.

It comes the day after a separate study published by the Demos thinktank found that schools in some parts of England were more ethnically segregated than St Louis, the US city hit by race riots last year.

Today’s Encountering Faiths and Beliefs report suggests that “interculturalism” in schools could be a solution that helps fight prejudice. It argues that religious education should focus less on textbooks or abstract theological debates and instead prioritise bringing together people of different beliefs to create connections and promote mutual understanding.

Suggested practices for lessons include encouraging dialogue rather than debate, examining the challenges each faith community faces and focusing on people's personal experiences as individuals not as "representatives".

One example cited is of a Muslim girl sharing her experience of wearing the hijab by describing her previous prejudices against it and how her attitudes eventually changed – an approach that focuses on "lived belief" instead of religious doctrine.

But the report also warns against the pitfalls of taking a half-hearted approach towards promoting interculturalism.

"Given the sensitive nature of the issues, bad intercultural education can be worse than no intercultural education at all,” explains lead author Anna Trethewey of LKMco. “Our research uncovered examples that only reinforced stereotypes or which took an unbalanced and tokenistic approach.

“In one example, people had invited guests to a synagogue but were then denied access to a church on a reciprocal visit. In another case, a faith leader preached at their audience and allowed little space for dialogue."

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