Delegates at the event in Edinburgh were told that faith-based education breeds intolerance in pupils. Adi Bloom reports
Educationists in saris, headscarves, robes and pin-striped suits came together in Edinburgh this week for the 15th conference of Commonwealth education ministers. Ministers from the 52 member states of the Commonwealth meet every three years to discuss issues relevant to the developed and the developing world.
Access, inclusion and achievement were the themes of this year's conference, with delegates examining how to close the gap which separates rich and poor countries.
"There is nothing common about the Commonwealth," Professor Saravanan Gopinathan, of the National Institute of Education in Singapore, told the conference. "We need to understand that there are two Commonwealths: one set of developed countries, and one set of developing countries, trying to find a credible post-colonial education system."
This became obvious when ministers from developing countries spoke about the drain of teachers to Britain and other wealthy countries. They demanded compensation for the loss of qualified staff. Kader Asmal, South Africa's education minister, said that 4,702 of his country's teachers had been enticed to jobs in England and Wales in a two-year period. He said: "This is not poaching. It is bloodletting."
And a Nobel Prize-winning economist used the conference as a platform to call for the number of faith schools to be cut.
Amartya Sen, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and 1998 Nobel laureate, accused faith schools of breeding illiberalism and intolerance, and of narrowing pupils' horizons. These schools, he said, had become popular only because of the lack of facilities in other, non-denominational state schools. He added that they encouraged pupils to define themselves by religion alone, leaving them with a one-dimensional view of society.
"The importance of non-sectarian and non-parochial curricula that expand, rather than reduce, the reach of reason can be hard to exaggerate," he said.
"We have to make sure that we do not have smallness thrust upon the young."
He shared the stage with a number of education ministers, including Education Secretary Charles Clarke, his Welsh counterpart Jane Davidson and Brendan Nelson, Australian education minister.
Mr Clarke, who supports faith schools in this country, did not respond to Professor Sen's address. In his own speech, he stressed the importance of communication and the exchange of ideas between Commonwealth countries.
He said: "Sometimes, in our country, we have been more inward-looking when it comes to education. We have to look outside ourselves and ask how we can take things forward in a better way. My government stands ready to do that."
Steve Sinnott, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, believes this outward gaze should include Professor Sen's suggestions.
"There is real potential for divisiveness in separating out pupils'
education," he said. "The Government should give real and genuine consideration to what was said."
The conference's findings were due out after The TES went to press and will be reported to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Nigeria in December.
A parallel symposium, attended by Commonwealth teachers, academics and non-governmental organisations, to exchange ideas for best practice, ran in conjunction with the ministers' meeting this week.
For the first time, this year's conference also hosted a youth summit.
Young people aged 18 to 23 held their own discussion programme, examining educational issues which affect them directly.
International delegates at the CCEM youth symposium outline major educational issues in their countries
Shabier St John, 17, Barbados:
"Like the UK, we have universal primary education and no problem with gender disparity. But there is too much assessment. We're so busy struggling to meet deadlines we don't have time to enjoy studying. People are less inclined to keep studying, so they drop out. Also, teachers don't get paid enough. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in the world.
But it's difficult to maintain quality because good teachers drop out."
Nancy Samamad, 17, Mozambique:
"There are very few schools in my country and teachers are not qualified enough. Some teachers are still in school themselves. In some areas there aren't any school buildings, so teachers take classes outside. If it rains, they don't have classes. Students have difficulties learning in these conditions."
Katie Jardim, 20, Gibraltar:
"There are only 30,000 people in Gibraltar, so we don't have specialised teachers for disabled people. I'm deaf, and I never had a special teacher.
When we were taking notes, I had to lip-read and write at the same time, which made it very difficult. There should be a qualified deaf teacher and equipment for people like me, so I can feel included."
Philip Johnson, 17, Cardiff:
"We have too many exams. If you're not feeling well on an exam day, it can ruin your whole future. There should be more coursework across the year, so that you can show what you're capable of. Students shouldhave more say in education and how schools are run. We have a sixth-form council, but it's powerless. No one really listens to us."
Masemote Molale, 18, Lesotho:
"Four teachers at my school have HIV. Some pupils think they can catch it by being intheir class. But it's good to have these teachers, to show that Aids is a problem. Most girls in my country are taken out of school because their parents think girls just have children and look after their families.
But if you're a woman you educate the whole nation because men listen to their mothers."
Shankar Kuladevan, 19, Sri Lanka:
"In rural schools we don't have sufficient facilities, such as electricity, running water or computers. They also don't have sufficient lab facilities, so pupils don't have any practical knowledge. Our curriculum is mainly theoretical, not practical. Pupils just memorise everything. And we don't give much importance to vocational studies."