Why the International Day of Education matters for Bristol

By Leon Tikly, International Ambassador for Bristol, Professor in Education, University of Bristol & UNESCO Chair.

In a world marked by conflict, there is much that Bristol schools, colleges and universities can do to foster peace in the city and around the world. 24 January marks UNESCO International Day of Education, an annual event meant to highlight the importance of an Inclusive and Quality Education available to all across the lifespan. The theme for this year is Learning for Lasting Peace. This is highly relevant given the number of conflicts currently going on around the world from Gaza to Ukraine, to Afghanistan to Syria, and in the Horn of Africa.

In my role as an Ambassador for the city of Bristol and as a UNESCO Chair, I realise there is much that we can do as a city to support this day. Many citizens of our city have fled conflict themselves or have relatives caught up in conflict situations. The idea of lasting peace is not just a concept that applies to other parts of the world. Many of our learners also, sadly, experience forms of hate speech and bullying including Islamophobia, antisemitism, and anti-Black racism in their own communities and at school.

In many parts of the world, schools can often become military targets. Thousands of learners and teachers are caught up in or killed in conflict every year. Conflict destroys the hopes and aspirations of millions of learners around the world. Girls are often particularly affected by conflict through being excluded from school as was the case in Afghanistan. Girls can also be victims of gender-based violence during conflict. Educational institutions can perpetuate violence if they do not provide a balanced picture of the nature and causes of conflicts or allow hate speech and bullying to go unchecked.

Crucially, however, schools, colleges and universities can also play a positive role in nurturing lasting peace. One way to do this is to provide support for refugees and asylum seekers. I am proud that, as a City of Sanctuary, Bristol has welcomed refugees, including children of school-going age fleeing conflict but there is much more that can be done.

We need to listen to and understand the lived experiences of these learners, many of whom will have experienced trauma related to conflict and being a refugee. One of my former students, Jáfia Câmara, has developed a book that does just that. The book graphically illustrates in accessible form the aspirations of refugee young people but also some of the barriers they face in accessing a good quality education in Bristol schools.

There is much that schools can do to make refugees feel welcomed. However, many schools and teachers feel that they lack relevant knowledge and expertise. Cathedral Choir School is an example of a local school that has joined the Schools of Sanctuary initiative. The initiative offers practical advice for how schools can respond to the educational and emotional needs of refugees from conflict. Early years is an important area of intervention and where there are resources available to support practitioners and parents.

Schools can find out more about refugee rights from organisations such as Bristol Refugee Rights. A specialised area of support for refugees and their families is in the area of language and there are some excellent resources available here too. The Refugee Women of Bristol initiative provides specialised support including language support for women refugees. These initiatives do not treat refugees solely as victims but also as having skills that can make a contribution to our city. Both the University of Bristol and The University of the West of England offer sanctuary scholarships and conduct important research into the experiences of refugees from conflict and these initiatives need to be further strengthened.

Schools, colleges, and universities have a crucial role to play in supporting lasting peace but need to be supported and encouraged to realise this role. We can teach learners about the nature and causes of conflict and encourage our learners to become advocates for lasting peace in our communities and around the world. Schools can teach peace building skills as part of global citizenship education.  These include skills in conflict resolution but also in active listening and critical thinking so as learners can better understand the causes of conflict, counter hate speech and misinformation spread on social media and find positive solutions to conflict home and abroad. Exchange programmes with schools, colleges and universities in conflict affected areas is a great way to sensitise learners to the nature and causes of conflict and the possibilities for peace. Teaching our learners about the rich diversity of our wonderful city including the cultures brought by refugees and asylum seekers is a great way to break down barriers but also to empower learners as active agents for lasting peace in Bristol and around the world.