The Blog

Education is a Security Issue

The news that some schools in Birmingham are under investigation by the Department for Education has caused widespread concern about the role education plays in the area of religious extremism. It has also triggered a national debate around what constitutes "British values" and how our children should be educated about them.

Britain is essentially an open-minded country, accepting of different viewpoints and beliefs. This is something we should be proud of, but it isn't unique. Many of the values identified are shared across our globalised, interconnected world. But these open-minded values are under attack from those with a closed-mind. They don't allow pluralism. No other religion or way of living is accepted. They impose their views on others.

Across the world we face a constantly growing and evolving threat from violent extremism, much of it religious in its motivation. To propagate their closed mindset extremists have networks of outreach to young people and understand the power of education, whether formal or informal. They use these networks to fill young minds with the belief that anyone who disagrees with them is God's enemy.

We can see the effect of this in Nigeria. Analysts believe that Boko Haram recruits heavily from students from schools in the "Almajiri" network. These institutions are largely independent of government and it is alleged that students memorise the Quran and little else. Some former students have accused their teachers of promoting religious violence.

This is why we need to start thinking of education as a security issue. Whilst ensuring our formal and informal education systems are not exposed to improper influence, we must also do what we can to give young minds the best chance to develop the skills necessary to resist extremist thinking. Specifically, we must show the most connected generation in human history that there is a more meaningful way to engage with the world.

The need is great - especially when you factor in the technological change and increased migration caused by globalisation. Before the digital revolution, young people met people from other countries and cultures in largely moderated circumstances. Today, they can interact with people anywhere in the world in seconds on their smartphones. They are exposed to a variety of opinions, beliefs and cultures. There are great opportunities, but not all of them are positive or safe.

This means that it is up to our education systems to intervene. If we can teach children to recognise what they have in common with those from other cultures, we can also help them to resist the prejudices of those who seek to distort the truth and divide people.

Our global schools programme shows one way of doing this. Face to Faith promotes cross-cultural dialogue among students aged 12-17 around the world. Reaching students in over 20 countries - as diverse as Pakistan, India, the US, Jordan, Egypt, Canada, Italy, the Philippines and Indonesia - our programme connects students via a secure website, where they interact from their classrooms under the guidance of trained teachers.

Through facilitated videoconferences, students discuss global issues from a variety of faith and belief perspectives. They gain the dialogue skills required to prevent prejudice and conflict by breaking down religious and cultural stereotypes.

This type of learning needs to be a core part of young people's education. Governments must look at how they can reform curricula to make this a reality. Each year we spend billions and put much strategic thinking into fighting the consequences of religious extremism. It's about time we put the same sort of effort into long-term preventative measures.

Charlotte Keenan is Chief Executive of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation