THE BLOG

Teachers' Call for Better Understanding of the Gulf Must Be Heard

22/10/2014 10:24 BST | Updated 21/12/2014 10:59 GMT

The impact and influence of the Gulf region on modern society is increasingly distinctive. And yet, what do most of us really understand about how closely linked our nation is with that part of the world?

Teachers agree with the premise that more should be done to bridge that divide. New research by the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership has today revealed that over two in three British secondary school teachers do not believe enough is being done by secondary schools to educate school children about Gulf history and Arabic cultural heritage.

And that call for a better understanding is almost as prevalent in higher education, with 41% of academics saying more could be done at universities.

Why should this be the case? Many Western nations have been heavily influenced by both the extraordinary scientific advancements of the Arab world and its role in the eventual establishment of the geopolitics of the Middle East as it stands today.

So it stands to reason that teachers and academics expect a closer correlation between global affairs, be they historical or current, and the materials available to students to learn about their place in the world.

To that end, a new bi-lingual, online portal called the Qatar Digital Library was launched today. It provides access to previously undigitised British Library archive materials relating to Gulf history and Arabic science.

Crucially, it provides contextual material to help teachers and students make the best use of the 500,000 digitised pages available - whether you're a PhD student, school teacher or simply an amateur historian, those links will enable the reader to navigate through the annals of Arab, Gulf and British history with ease.

Why is this important? Our research shows that teachers believe increasing knowledge of Gulf history and Arab nations' contribution to global science is not just about improving understanding of the Islamic world - a noble task in its own right. They believe it is also vital to ensure future generations of students are better equipped for globalisation (67%); and to maintain the UK's world-leading status in international cultural, social and political engagements (62%).

Importantly, over half (52%) of teachers we surveyed also thought that the UK would be made more economically competitive if knowledge of Gulf history and Arabic heritage was increased.

The global education sector has changed forever and Britain has to keep pace. Education is fast becoming an international commodity and that puts a great emphasis on ensuring students have access to the right materials and the right courses, wherever they are.

The impact of something like the Qatar Digital Library is not to be underestimated. Schools need more source materials; universities need better access to archives, manuscripts and contextualised content; and the international community is increasingly drawn to the Gulf, and to Arab and Islamic life, as its influence over the world becomes ever more distinctive.

Let's put it in simple terms. One of the greatest barriers to furthering research of British history in the Gulf has been physical: you had no option but visit British Library and retrieve an archive item. Now, in one click of a button, that barrier has been lifted and global research on the topic will progress more effectively than ever before. We all now have free and open access to hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, archives, maps, sound recordings and photographs from the region.

We genuinely believe that the education sector can and will make use of this resource to provide a better balance of learning opportunities about the region to many different types of student, from secondary school history classes to in-depth, niche research in higher education.

Dr. James Onley, Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at Exeter University, Editor of Journal of Arabian Studies and one of the foremost experts in this subject, has himself described the launch of the Qatar Digital Library as a "major milestone" in the study of these countries, which will "expand and ultimately transform our understanding of the region."

A great challenge, and a necessary one according to our teachers. Let's ensure their voice is heard.