The Issue - Interfaith harmony starts in the classroom

15th November 2013 at 00:00
Teachers play an essential role in growing understanding between different groups, so make Inter Faith Week count at your school

Religion is all too often seen as a controversial topic in schools. People fear causing offence and worry about the right things to say or do, but this can result in a top-down approach to interfaith relations, where fear of missteps leads management to dictate and control strategies rather than allow teachers to be proactive.

Of course, whole-school strategies are important. And although the organisation I work for, the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), runs workshops for school leaders on this issue, it is crucial that teachers recognise the important role they can play in the classroom, and that they are permitted to fulfil that role.

In our increasingly diverse society, the importance of equipping young people with the skills and confidence to communicate and work effectively with people from a wide variety of backgrounds can hardly be overstated. Equally important is to instil an attitude of curiosity and openness, rather than fear and hostility, towards cultural and religious difference.

This can happen in many places, but our experience at 3FF is that schools are at the heart of fostering inclusivity and understanding among students, parents and the wider community. Teachers are central to the interactions between those parties and have the most direct influence on them.

So what should teachers be doing? It sounds basic, but staff must know their school: not just where to find the chemistry lab or the drama studio, but everything about the students. How devout is the cohort? What are the various denominations? How does faith affect students at the school?

By being aware of the make-up of their school, teachers can begin to understand students' motivations. They can begin to cater for an array of beliefs, which will help to strengthen individual values and lead to greater understanding between groups.

Once this environment exists, teachers can use certain strategies to help children begin to understand the complex issues of religion and identity in society.

The first is to use a student's curiosity. Teachers should enable open discussions where students can question why there are differences between faiths and beliefs. Discussion is often closed down through fear of a student being offensive. The conversation should be facilitated respectfully and sensitively, with ground rules about listening to others, respecting different views and not making generalisations. But it is important that students can speak frankly within those limits.

A second strategy is to invite speakers from different faiths and beliefs into school. Often teachers fear that this will lead to awkward moments. Topics in the news - terrorism, war, conflicts in the Middle East, extremism - as well as stereotypes are sometimes brought up, particularly by younger students. Yet nothing shatters prejudice more effectively than creating a safe environment in which trained speakers can respond to misconceptions directly.

Even the most controversial questions often come from a place of genuine curiosity and have the potential to provide young people with great learning opportunities. But it is crucial to encourage an attitude of understanding and curiosity rather than an adversarial, debate-style interaction. You can do this by setting out the same rules as with class discussions and by ensuring that someone who has experience of facilitating discussions leads the conversation in a positive direction.

A more "everyday" approach to building good relations between students of different faiths is to emphasise common interests. Through sport, music and drama - pursuits that rely on interaction and teamwork - students can see that, regardless of their religion, they have qualities that unite them.

It is important to remember that questioning and understanding different beliefs is a lesson that goes beyond the classroom. Faith is not restricted to textbooks: it shapes communities and relationships. Schools have a unique opportunity to play an active role in building firm foundations for prosperous local faith relations, too. Teachers should be active in their community, seeing and experiencing the world in which their students reside, and that community should become part of lessons.

An obstacle that commonly stands in the way of faith education is that parents may feel uneasy at the idea of children being taught about beliefs that are different to their own. This can be a valid argument: many children are not yet comfortable with their own identity, so how can they be expected to understand a totally new one? But, if done right, education about different faiths and beliefs tends to give students a stronger sense of their own cultural identity and increase their knowledge of others.

Next week is Inter Faith Week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a plethora of strategies and tips will be made available to schools all around the world by the many organisations and charities involved in this celebration of religious cooperation. Make sure your school is part of the action.

Aisling Cohn was speaking to Jack Barber. She is schools manager at the Three Faiths Forum. Inter Faith Week runs from 17-23 November.

Read Ian Rivers' Leadership column

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