x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Blair puts his faith in student dialogue

Former British leader's charity will work with six Dubai schools to promote interfaith dialogue.

DUBAI // Schools must address the changes of globalisation with an increased focus on interfaith dialogue, said policymakers at yesterday's Education Without Borders conference.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, emphasised the role of the country's future leaders in promoting tolerance, peace, prosperity and understanding within the region and throughout the world.

He said: "Global society places unusual demands on young people while simultaneously offering unprecedented opportunities.

"This means the balance between local and national culture and world view is shifting. We must help students prepare for this new world so that they might become productive citizens."

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister who is now the Special Envoy to the Middle East of the Quartet nations of the US, EU, Russia and the UN in attempts to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, also addressed the conference.

"When we talk about education today, we have to talk about it in the context of being globalised citizens ... if you're a school or college today that wants to do well, don't just think of your own country," said Mr Blair.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, a UK based charity, is now working with the country's largest federal university, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and six schools owned by GEMS, the UAE's largest education provider, in Dubai and Al Ain.

The HCT will be the first to offer a new course, Faith and Globalisation, in October, teaching students to engage with faith in an increasingly globalised society. The foundation aims to promote greater interfaith understanding around the world through students, using methods such as international aid projects and video link-ups.

Yale University in the US was the first to implement the course, in association with the former UK prime minister's foundation.

Dr Senthil Nathan, vice-provost at HCT, said the one-term course, which now runs in eight universities around the world including Durham University in the UK and the National University of Singapore, is part of the college's widening of the liberal arts courses on offer.

Faith and Globalisation will be an optional credited course open to all students, no matter what their major. Introducing the course brought challenges, Mr Nathan said. "This isn't a religion course. It's about how young people of faith can contribute to the betterment of human kind. It's like the principles of the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, not to teach religion," he said.

Six GEMS schools including Jumeira College and Our Own Al Ain, are now participating in the foundation's Face To Faith programme, in which students of many faiths and backgrounds between the ages of 11 and 16 study a subject such as malaria during one weekly lesson involving dialogue, debate and video conferencing between schools around the world.

The curriculum aims to highlight common themes across faiths, not through race or religion but common causes. Sian Rowles, the assistant head of Jumeirah College, says the programme has been well received by students. "We're preparing our students for a fantastic future where in their working and personal lives they can collaborate and co-operate with people from all over," she said.

"Globalisation pushes people together so people are mixing with those of different faiths," added Mr Blair. "The programme has not made the students change their faith but deepened their understanding of their own faiths."

Maddie Bowe, the country co-ordinator for GEMS, said the Face to Faith project had "broken down misconceptions and brought people together who'd normally be too busy to even speak".

mswan@thenational.ae