As Classrooms Reopen For The New Year, We Are No Nearer To Ensuring Every Child Receives An Education

Huffington Post UK, September 7, 2017

September is here and once again that back-to-school feeling seems to seep into my consciousness. As my mind wanders, I find myself reminiscing about those first few days when the books smell new and the shoes still shine. We spend over a decade leaping from one classroom to the next, at an institution many look back on with fondness, others with unease. As time passes, however, school becomes an intrinsic part of our collective memory. 

Imagining a world where those memories did not exist is almost impossible. And yet, as this September rolls over, this is the stark reality for many. The recent demolition of schools in Palestine and the ongoing attacks against those in Syria are reminders of how precious education is. It is the foundation that enables us to go on to build a life we choose. It is a human right. Tragically, millions are still denied this. 

Protecting education during war is not easy, the challenge is multifaceted and yet it is essential. Education is a crucial tool for helping to create peaceful resilient societies that are less likely to fall back into war, creating stability and ultimately sustainability. But, education itself is a double-edged sword. It can either ease social tensions, or create barriers between people, depending on its nature and quality. Those with an agenda to push can take advantage of education if they are allowed to do so, and this can be dangerous. To break the cycle of violence that prevents education in conflict zones, or education of the wrong kind, world leaders must take a holistic view which takes into consideration the 5Ps: prevention, prosecution, protection, post-conflict recovery and partnership.

When there is conflict, we must take action against those who commit atrocities against education, through the legal system. We need to ensure laws change to offer maximum protection to education. Just as hospitals and prisoners of war are rightly protected during conflict, attacks on schools must be enshrined or enforced as unacceptable acts. We must educate those who are involved in war and armed conflict on the importance of stopping all attacks on education. We must monitor such attacks, through the use of early warning systems, which we then act on. To achieve this we need to strengthen the ability of both the International Criminal Court and domestic courts to deter attacks on schools and education through prosecution.

Take the case of Syria. Over the last six years of conflict, we have seen deliberate attacks on educational institutions. The same way we collectively insist that hospitals and health workers are ‘not a target’ during conflict, schools, educational facilities, teachers and students should also be protected in conflict zones. To children in a war zone, education is a life-line to a better future. Strengthening governance to protect education in conflict areas is innovative and vital work.

However, whilst prosecution is essential, prevention must remain at the heart of what we do and education is a fundamental part of that. Curriculums need to cover topics such as peace, tolerance, acceptance and global citizenship, especially in fragile and at-risk parts of the world. By educating children and young people on these issues, we can create resilience to violent extremism and mitigate its motives. Through these measures, we aim to give nations a roadmap to a better future. Quality education can be a virtuous circle, reinforcing good. 

If together, in partnership, we work to protect the sanctity of schools in conflict zones while using all means possible to prosecute the perpetrators of attacks; if we can help societies recover from conflict, use education to prevent conflict and, perhaps most importantly of all, provide quality primary education to all out-of-school children around the world, then we will make a very big and very real difference.

The current refugee crisis and the on-going attacks to education across the world have all played out on our television screens this summer. And yet it is perhaps only in this week in which children return to school and we remember our own time that we realize what it is that these children are missing. It is in this moment that we should call on world leaders to do more to protect education. 

Mubarak Al-Thani is a Global Advocacy Specialist for Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC) undertakes advocacy for the right to education, based on international law. It operates under the umbrella of the Education Above All Foundation, which was founded in 2012 by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser of Qatar.

These are remarks presented by Mubarak Al Thani at the UKFIET Conference at Oxford University, “Learning and Teaching for Sustainable Development”, 7 September 2017