As SAT‑7 launches its ACADEMY channel, Martin Thomas, children’s author and SAT‑7’s UK Director for External Engagement, reflects on changing attitudes in global education.

How many parents or carers have heard the early morning cry, “I don’t want to go to school”? If we were to do a global survey on children’s attitudes towards education would we be surprised to discover that apathy towards school or learning is mainly a ‘western’ affliction? Are we in danger of taking education – even our freedom to think and ask questions – for granted?

Around the world it is a very different story – where more than 250 million children and young people are currently out of school. In April, the Chair of the Commons Select Committee, Stephen Twigg MP, urged the UK government to increase spending on global education, saying “There is a global learning crisis … [we] must not be afraid to stand up for the most vulnerable to ensure that no child is left behind.”

Through ongoing turmoil and conflicts it has been increasingly sad to see the Middle East and North Africa struggle to provide, or even deny access to, education for its children. Due to negative media attention and recent atrocities, we easily forget how the region and its people have contributed so positively and significantly to much of our own western understanding of education, philosophy, arts, science and health.

Building bridges of hope

Esther, an American friend, who works with refugees at a church in Beirut, recently blogged part of a story taken from a conversation with a Syrian refugee. They had said: “How you treat the children today will determine if there will be an ISIS tomorrow.”

These words demonstrate, perhaps more powerfully than any statistic, the need for us to make God’s love visible to children – especially through education. Building on the historic contribution Christians have made to education across the region and believing in the importance of education for younger generations, SAT‑7 is a signatory to the World at School campaign. Its weekly current affairs program Bridges also highlights the role that Middle East Christians continue to play today, in offering quality education and schools to society.

“The main concept of education is to help one move from illiteracy to literacy. We encourage critical thinking,” Fr Samuel Fahim, a member of the General Secretariat of Catholic schools in Egypt, told SAT-7’s Bridges show. Fr Youssef Assaad, a member of its projects development committee, took this thinking even further. “Education is the first step towards freedom. There is no freedom without education.”

There are around 129 Catholic, 25 Evangelical, plus some Coptic Orthodox schools across Egypt. Christian schools in Egypt are not limited to Christians only; two thirds of students attending are non-Christians. Fr Samuel sees this commitment to education for all as a biblical mandate. “Jesus didn’t restrict His teaching to the Jewish people, but He also taught other people like the Samaritan woman. He taught her to use her mind to think.”

A new vision for education

SAT‑7’s plans for the channel fit well with the development goals1 of the UNESCO Global Education 2030 Agenda. UNESCO’s vision is “to transform lives through education … to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Education, they say, is “essential for peace, tolerance, human fulfilment and sustainable development.” Senior Christian leaders concurred when they voiced their support for SAT‑7 ACADEMY at our Network conference, held in Beirut, in March.

“Education is one of the greatest answers to the problems of the Middle East,” said His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK. “While many don’t have access to education, they are able to be manipulated and radicalised. The more we open our people’s minds and give them not only the ability to discern but the mechanism to actually improve their lives, have careers and input into the community, [the more] significant benefit both to the individual but also to the whole region.”

Dr Michael Bassous, General Secretary of the Bible Society of Lebanon, said, “Our cry for an education channel dates back about a decade. We have all types of channels but no one has really invested in the education of our young people. SAT‑7 comes as an answered prayer and an answered call. Only through educating the new generation will we be able to cast new values in the region and will we be able to educate them about what democracy really means. The timing of SAT‑7 ACADEMY is perfect for the region.”

Investing in the future

Not long after my friend Esther heard the words of the Syrian refugee she wrote, “It seems obvious to me that if we want to make an impact in the direction of the Middle East tomorrow, now is the time to get involved and invest in the children’s education as well as their spiritual development.“

I couldn’t agree more. So, next time a child says to you, “I don’t want to go to school” or “learning’s boring”, perhaps you could find creative ways to encourage them to think about it differently? Open their eyes, just a little, to the challenges thousands of children and families are facing at this time. Show that they have been given something precious, the gift of freedom to think, to learn and to grow. Something that every child and adult should have the opportunity to receive – wherever they live.

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