Teachers without borders

I’ve been thinking! Dangerous I know – but with a new portfolio such asInternational Development – that’s my role. And out of all the briefings I’ve had about all the injustices and challenges of the developing world, the one that jumped out at me was the plight of children – orphaned, displaced and traumatized, sometimes for generations.

When war wrecks a child’s life – be it the murder of their families, loss of their home, displacement or injury – they are left vulnerable and fragile. Where natural disaster, war or protracted conflict rages the world rushes in with medicine, food, water and shelter – obviously. But there is something more that is needed – even at that first point. It is education. Despite the life-saving benefits of education, in emergencies and in protracted conflicts where war can deny children a future for decades – children are missing out because education is currently not part of the humanitarian response.

According to research conducted by Save the Children, 39 million of the 77 million children still missing out on primary school education are in conflict-affected states. When I questioned Hilary Benn (Secretary of State for International Development) on this recently he agreed on the record that education should now be considered part of humanitarian response.

The physical and material destruction of war and conflict is bad enough, but the lack of access to education sometimes for years and decades has a devastating effect on the (re)building of any sort of future for the people and the country.

Focusing on education in a conflict zone is vital in order to establish a future for that region. War only teaches war. Children need not only the therapeutic medicine of learning itself but also – as they emerge from the carnage – children need to be given the skills and capacity to become anything from farmers to pharmacists.

Moreover, the relationship between education and community and political participation is well established. Participation in education contributes to community action and national political life. Teachers can also help children to develop new skills and knowledge necessary for survival and coping in a post-conflict environment, including landmine awareness and safety, negotiation and problem solving, and information about HIV/AIDS and other health issues.

In the long term, education can lay the foundations for lasting peace and development by providing a whole generation with the skills to build their country. After conflict, an educated population offers people the skills to rebuild their lives. However, if education is missing for years and generations during conflict, then you will not have the educated population to establish peace, civic society and economic prosperity needed to create a future.

So – the big idea is to create a sort of education version of the Red Cross to go into regions ravaged by conflict to deliver an educational capability in the same swift way that the humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontiers go in to provide humanitarian aid. Teachers Without Borders would provide a first response to the educational needs and build capacity in the locality – because this would be about meeting immediate needs rather than staying for years and years as a substitute education service.

Similar arrangements already exist in other areas. For example, police officers are often deployed on peace support operations. Through advising, training and monitoring, they help support fragile states and help make and keep the peace.

Practical models already exist for the short-term release of education professionals for other purposes. For example, a system of deferred payment allows experienced Australian teachers to take time out from their schools for professional development, industry placements, or international community work.

Perhaps the best part of this concept is that a few weeks after I first started floating it, Gordon Brown – he of Number 11, wishing he were at Number 10, Downing Street – voiced support for the concept in Parliament. Thus – this idea is going with the grain of what is possible to achieve even under the current political management.

To help flesh out the idea I have set up a special website http://www.teacherswithoutborders.info with more details and a chance for people to submit their views on several of the key points. Please take a few moments to visit, read and let me know your thoughts – especially if you are involved in development or education issues yourself. And if you don’t have internet access, just write to me at House of Commons, London, SW1A 1AA.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007

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