Positive interaction: thoughts on the Church of England’s Living Well Together conference

4th January 2016

Back in December I had the opportunity to go along to the Living Well Together conference organised by Church of England Education. The conference raised some tough questions about how schools and colleges could better support communities from different faiths and cultures in UK society in “living well together”. Some argued that many young people find it difficult to ask questions or challenge beliefs without fear or conflict, something that was described as a lack of ‘religious literacy’. This issue was at the heart of our report “Encountering Faiths and Beliefs: the role of Intercultural Education in schools and communities” for 3FF (the Three Faiths Forum) which argued that:

  • Policymakers need to move beyond ‘multiculturalism’ and towards intercultural education which actually engages with differences between
  • Pupils need to be taught skills to discuss controversial issues around belief sensitively.
  • Education should tackle challenges different communities are facing, such as inter-religious tensions and prejudice.

Four major themes were explored over the course of the conference:

  1. How can Government best support schools?

Clearly, an inner city secondary school in Birmingham will need to take a different approach to a rural primary school in Cornwall. Therefore, no-one at the conference wanted the DfE to prescribe content to be taught as part intercultural education. However, in Encountering Faiths and Beliefs, we set out 3FF’s five key principles that underpin high quality intercultural education in every context.

  1. Teach the tools
  2. Focus on personal experience as an individual not as a ‘representative’
  3. Foster dialogue not debate
  4. Tailor the approach to the context and the challenges the community is overcoming
  5. Support participants to reflect on learning and take it into the wider world

Organisations like Local Authorities, regional school commissioners and teaching schools alliances can however help by signposting opportunities for positive intercultural contact or even commissioning expert support where budgets allow, especially in less obviously diverse areas.

  1. Who is responsible in schools?

In Encountering Faiths and Beliefs we highlighted concerns that “British values” and the Government’s ‘Prevent’ strategy were closing off opportunities for discussion. This is regrettable since intercultural education should extend beyond subjects like RE, philosophy/ethics and citizenship; all teachers should feel confident in their own religious literacy and ability to manage faith/culture-related conflicts. A BBC report from April 2015 highlighted this lack of confidence and the NUT passed a motion at its 2015 Annual Conference stating that “many school staff are now unwilling to allow discussions in their classroom for fear of the consequences.”

Schools should support teachers in managing difficult discussions around faith and culture and encourage them to find opportunities across all subject to teach students the tools they need for challenging but positive discussion and debate. Extra-curricula activities, visits, form-time and external experts can also play their part.

  1. The role of positive interaction

Tolerance might be better than hostility but it’s not enough. Schools should actively encourage positive interaction between cultures and faiths. As we argue in Encountering Faiths and Beliefs, students need opportunities not just to meet people from different faiths, but to be supported in discussing and challenging different beliefs as part of this. We found examples of great practice, such as the Think Project in Wales, which brought together children considered vulnerable to far-right ideologies and people from different faith communities.

It’s not just in rural, fairly mono-cultural areas like North Derbyshire (where I taught) that young people can lack opportunities to interact with people of different faiths; even in diverse neighbourhoods communities can be segregated.

  1. Building bridges outside of the school gates

The sixth formers at the conference argued that their parents were much less open to intercultural education than they were and were often unclear about the purpose of RE lessons. Some feared that it was an attempt to convert their children, or to change their ideas about their faith or culture. Schools therefore need to communicate RE and intercultural education’s aims to parents and build links to parent and community groups.

Overall the conference highlighted a number of areas which schools need to carefully negotiate. Cultural and religious cohesion is both challenging and important, and while schools are only part of the solution, they can and should play a vital role in helping young people through a potentially fraught issue.