Tony tells pupils to trust in faith

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Tony Blair's international programme links different religions

Back in the days when Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair's spinner-in- chief, he once famously remarked that his boss did not "do God".

But not only is the former Prime Minister now keen to talk about religious faith, he wants thousands of teachers and pupils across the world to do the same.

Mr Blair's Faith Foundation has launched an international programme to link schools serving different religious groups to improve understanding and create more tolerant children. He hopes his video-conferencing and curriculum package will eventually become a mainstream part of education systems around the globe.

"If you look round the different parts of the world and you look at conflicts, I would say a very large percentage of them have a religious dimension or a faith dimension to them," said Mr Blair.

"So to get young people at an early age to be comfortable with people of a different faith is extremely important."

From the launch event held in the former Prime Minister's plush London offices, pupils from Westhoughton High School in Bolton joined a video link with peers from Indian Heights School in New Delhi, India, and Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem on the West Bank.

Mr Blair asked pupils why faith could be a source of tension and what young people could contribute to peace.

One polished performer from Indian Heights told her host that adults were too set in their ways, while students were much more open-minded.

A pupil from Hope Flowers then asked what Mr Blair would do to solve conflict in her region if he was president of Palestine for the day.

At the end of an answer about dignity and justice for all, Mr Blair conceded that it was an easy thing to say but difficult to achieve. Not that the note of political realism did anything to dampen the spirit of the occasion. "Thank you, Tony!" beamed the teacher from the corner of a television screen after every answer.

The Face to Faith programme already has participants from 15 countries, with schools in another 12 expressing an interest in joining.

As well as video conferencing, there will be a secure online forum to allow pupils to continue their work together.

Curriculum materials have been designed to support lessons in RE, social sciences and citizenship. The programme has been accredited by Cambridge Assessment for the project component of its International GCSE in global perspectives. The foundation is also keen for it to form part of mainstream GCSE.

Phil Hart, head of Westhoughton High, one of the pilot sites, said he hoped to have the project up and running by the end of the month.

"Currently, quite a low percentage of our pupils are from ethnic minority families, but that is changing rapidly," he said.

"We see this as an opportunity to try to address that. It is about understanding and trying to get through some of the ignorance that can prevail."

Mr Blair was a strong advocate of single-faith schools during his premiership, but rejected the idea that they made inter-faith understanding more difficult.

"Faith schools should play a part in trying to break down those barriers," he said.

"Many faith schools do that very well so there need not be an inconsistency between those things, but you have to work at it."

Campaign group Accord, a collection of religious and secular organisations, published an independent survey this week which found that 57 per cent of respondents agreed that faith schools that admit pupils based on their religion undermine community cohesion.

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