Education and Skills

Why we need education built for peace – especially in times of war

Building peace education into wider curriculums can help to create more peaceful socieities.

Building peace education into wider curriculums can help to create more peaceful socieities. Image: REUTERS/Ceerwan Aziz/Files (IRAQ)

Jane Mann
Managing Director of the Partnership for Education; Director of Education in International Education, Cambridge Partnership for Education
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  • Throughout history, the role of education in building lasting peace has been undervalued.
  • Today, as wars rage from Ukraine to Gaza and beyond, we must double down on ensuring all children have access to quality education.
  • Doing so is not just the right thing to do, but it will also ensure more peaceful and prosperous societies.

It’s time we take education as seriously as other drivers of war and peace. What and how children learn has geopolitical consequences, as well as fundamental social and economic ones.

“Imagine that you learnt the alphabet and numbers with images of Kalashnikovs and tanks instead of apples and oranges” — this isn’t the premise of a dystopian novel, but an observation from Pakistani journalist Nadir Eledroos on something that actually happened to millions of children in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Astonishingly, these “mujahideen textbooks” were funded and created by the US government with the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Books with titles like the Alphabet of Jihad Literacy were, as NYU’s Professor Dana Burde notes, “designed in large part to support the Cold War struggle against the Soviets.” They had a long tail, lingering in Afghan schools for decades, in part because of their high production values.

Instead of this kind of approach, we need education that’s built for peace — especially in times of war.

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Reimagining education to build for peace

We must raise our aspirations for the quality of education for the tens of millions of children affected by conflict right now. Today, there are more conflicts than at any point since the Second World War. Far too many children’s lives are shaken by war.

When we see children affected by conflict on our TV screens, we rarely think about their long-term education. Too often, the focus is on short-term emergency aid. Education typically falls well below water, sanitation and shelter on any list of priorities — and understandably so. But amid protracted war, a child’s opportunity to learn critical foundational knowledge and vital skills ebbs away. This is unacceptable.

Learners need consistency and continuity. It’s why Cambridge University Press & Assessment is joining others from the global education community to support Ukraine: not only to mitigate learning loss, but to build a better education system for its children after the war.

Education is a superpower. It helps children to thrive not only in time of stability, but even more so in moments of fragility. The skills that help us flourish in a changing workplace are the very same as those needed to navigate an unpredictable world: problem solving, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

These abilities not only make for better engineers, doctors or entrepreneurs. They make for better citizens, more peaceful people and more stable societies. They cultivate what Stefan Dercon calls a “development bargain”, where a country’s elites “shift from protecting their own positions to gambling on a growth-based future.”

We know that education itself reduces conflict. Nations are less likely to experience violent conflict if their populations had higher levels of education. This matters even more for the millions of children whose schooling is disrupted by war.

Ukrainian children have been displaced throughout their country and all over Europe by Russia’s illegal invasion. In Ukraine, there is widespread learning loss, afflicting millions of children, with a deterioration in learning outcomes of language, reading and mathematics. That those children faced war and displacement immediately after Covid-19 disruption makes the situation particularly devastating.

The destruction in Gaza is set to lead to a ‘lost generation’ of Palestinian children, the UN has warned.

We should not accept this. Those affected will not.

Displaced children and their families are not so different from those that enjoy peace and stability.

When you talk to Rohingya refugee parents about their children’s education, they — just like their counterparts in Singapore or London — want to know about progression. When will their child reach the next stage? What qualifications can they gain? Where will this take them in life?

Interim answers are insufficient. ‘School in a box’ packages with three months’ worth of pencils, notebooks and learning materials are designed for emergency measures, not long-term displacement. Children deserve more, and they aspire to something better.

Peace and development at the heart of education

In times of crisis, we should aim to rebuild education systems to place peace and sustainable development at the core. We should not hesitate to enable progression, quality and ambition.

Cambridge and Unicef sought to do this in developing an education programme for Rohingya refugee children. We also trialled embedding conflict resolution into learning materials for South Sudan in 2017.

We know, and have shown, that interpersonal skills and values of peacebuilding can be nurtured in mathematics and science as much as in personal and social education. Lesson plans and learning materials can plant the seeds of reintegration, both into a stable society and into a future national education system.

We can draw on longstanding success stories from the highest performing education systems, such as Finland. There, fairness, conflict resolution and mental health provision are embedded in the classroom.

The fastest and most effective way to introduce peace building to an education system is to make it a prerequisite for funding. Policymakers and donors should insist that the cross-cutting theme of conflict resolution — alongside other core values like gender equality and sustainability — is built into proposals for new education programmes.

Learners need consistency and continuity. It’s why the global education community, including Cambridge experts, are working to translate and map parts of the Ukrainian curriculum to those of countries hosting refugees. Ukraine’s government is planning not only mitigation and restoration, but to build a better education system for its children after the war.

On 28 February 1924, the world’s powers ratified the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This groundbreaking document was created by Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb after witnessing the horrors experienced by children in the First World War.

The declaration reminds us that humanity “owes to the Child the best that it has to give.” One hundred years on, that’s the least we can do.

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Education and SkillsResilience, Peace and Security
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