A MAJOR NEW REPORT from Quakers in Britain shines a light on schools which are putting peaceful and just learning environments at the heart of their approach to tackling the problems facing British school children, from mental ill-health to violence.

The report, Peace at the Heart: a relational approach to education in British schools, calls on the UK, Scottish and Welsh governments to support peace education in line with their international commitments and explores the evidence for more schools to adopt this approach.

The government should ensure peace education is fully funded, researched and embedded in teacher training; the report finds. This will equip students to navigate a complex world, shaping its future in the face of pressing global crises and combatting the proliferation of hate groups and polarisation in society.

Quakers have historically pioneered peace education, inspired by their belief that the Light is within everyone. For example, Kingston Quakers were are the forefront of bringing conflict resolution into UK schools in the 1980s, and Peacemakers, the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project, now works with many schools to develop a whole school approach to peace, and has worked with the Home Office to respond to youth violence.

In peace education, students learn about areas including the dynamics of conflictual relationships and human rights in law and practice, and cultivate empathy, curiosity and respect for others. It helps children learn to find alternative responses to conflict and works best when it permeates all aspects of the learning environment.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the UK to include peace education and human rights as a fundamental subject in the education system and to “tackle bullying and violence in schools, including by teaching human rights, building the capacities of students and staff members to respect diversity at school, [and] improving students’ conflict-resolution skills.”

The detailed report, which also draws on practical experience in schools, found that increasingly popular zero tolerance approaches violate children’s rights and cause harm. By contrast, the study finds schools which incorporate peace education enable rights to flourish, increase wellbeing and reduce exclusions.

The report recognises schools need support to implement new approaches in the face of challenges including societal inequality, large class sizes and the pressure to pursue peacekeeping-only approaches. With relatively modest statutory support, further training centres operating as regional hubs could be established to support many more schools to initiate a relational approach across Britain, Quakers say.

“Research has found that young people who develop their empathic imagination become less likely in adulthood to indulge in bullying, sexism, racism, generalised prejudice against out-groups, social dominance, authoritarianism and homo-phobia.

“Under-cultivated empathy, on the other hand, is socially corrosive,” the report says. “It critically diminishes moral reasoning and prosocial behaviour and risks normalising violent behaviour into adulthood.”

Police statistics point to the need to address these issues, with muggings at knifepoint increased by 35 per cent from 2010 to 2020, alongside a 53 per cent increase in assaults with a blade. A report from the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime in London in 2018 found that the development of self-awareness and interpersonal skills is more effective than deterrence and punishment.

The zero tolerance approach in schools has been criticised by the House of Commons Education Committee for excluding students who should be in mainstream education. Across English state schools there has been a sharp rise in exclusions, compounding social inequality, with those eligible for free school meals four times as likely to be excluded.

And a Department of Education study of 20 schools in England with recently improved behaviour and safety Ofsted ratings found many had focused on fostering positive understanding relationships with children.

An analysis of 10,000 students in the USA found that stricter rules led to more classroom disruption, not less. The strongest predictor of reduced disruption was not the threat of discipline, but whether students felt their teachers believed in them.

Adopting a relational approach across the whole school, cultivating a community ethos, fostering mutual support and a sense of belonging is more effective than psychotherapeutic work at improving children’s wellbeing, the Quakers found. Investment in individual mental ill-health in recent decades has had little impact on overall anxiety and depression.

* Read the report Peace at the Heart: a relational approach to education in British schools here.

* Peace at the Heart will be launched on11 May. Register here.

Source: Quakers in Britain