Whose business is education abroad?

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Do we in England feel any safer when a madrassa (religious school) is bombed in Pakistan? Or do we wonder about the young people who studied there?

After years of inaction, President Musharraf has adopted a heavy-handed approach towards a religious school, killing 80 people. That should concern us. Since it transpired that at least one of the July 7 bombers attended an institution in Pakistan, our Government, along with Washington, has been leaning on Pakistan to reform its education system.

Education, once solely the preserve of domestic policies, is becoming a foreign policy issue. But is it our business how other countries educate their children? I don't just mean helping to combat illiteracy, a human rights and development issue. I mean, should we actively interfere in the way other countries run their schools and their curriculums?

How would we feel if Germany told us to reform our education system because, in its view, our schools create football hooligans that roam Europe, or if Spain and Greece told us to close down certain schools because they turn out binge-drinkers who visit Majorca and Faliraki? Would we simply stick up a finger and tell them it was not their business to interfere in our education, thanks?

Disputes about the content of history books is a common cause of tension between previously warring nations. The German government, through its ambassador in London, lobbied hard against the extent to which our history courses were dominated by the Nazi era. The history GCSE guidelines were adjusted last year. France and Germany have also lobbied against the Government's policy to scrap compulsory foreign language education for 14 to 16-year-olds, but to less avail.

The hope in such lobbying is that we are open-minded enough as a nation to see the logic of their protests and will adjust our school curriculums accordingly. Elsewhere, things are not always so straightforward. In November last year, the US House of Representatives called on Saudi Arabia to reform its education system on the grounds that it promoted religious extremism and intolerance. The American view is that many of the 911 terrorists were Saudi-educated. The heavily religious curriculum, they argued, did not teach enough science and computing skills to equip young people for work, creating a generation of disaffected youths easily manipulated by extremists. To reinforce the point, the House also called on the US President to take into account progress towards education reform when determining US-Saudi relations.

It is easy to see this as the usual American big-stick approach. But we shouldn't be so smug. In September last year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling upon states to "prevent the subversion of educational institutions by terrorists and their supporters". It is the first international law that directly regulates education. The ultimate punishment for non-compliance is, in theory, UN sanctions. The resolution applies to the UK as much as to Afghanistan or Pakistan. But can any teacher detect a "subversive" inclination among his or her colleagues? And, if British-born bombers take it into their heads to attack other countries, will those nations then have the right to tell us how to run our schools?

On an international scale, the consequences might be Orwellian. Of course, we like to believe it wouldn't come to that. Not here. But consider what is going on elsewhere in the interests of a safer world. American education aid to Pakistan is aimed at instilling "democratic behaviours and attitudes among children and educators". That's rich, considering that in the 1980s Washington encouraged madrassas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as a barrier against communist ideology.

But surely the point in Pakistan (and Afghanistan and Iraq) is not what is being taught but whether anything is being taught at all. The Pakistani education system has been failing under successive governments. Poor families turn to madrassas as the only way their sons can learn to read and write and get a square meal. If these problems were fixed, perhaps people would leave madrassas of their own accord.

If education is to be a part of our foreign policy, it should be used to ensure education for all. Creating an egalitarian education system that equips young people for the modern world is a huge responsibility. If governments don't do that, including our own with regard to our ethnic minorities, then we might find our education system subverted by another country's foreign policy goals.

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