By John Galloway
"For me the core is the dealing with difference, and our ability to be explicit about the differences between religions," explains Annika Small director of education at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation when describing its Face to Faith programme
"There is a lot of work that goes on that tries to find the similarities between religions - and it's very important and there is a lot of similarity – but where we get into problems is where we try to hide the differences." Launched earlier this year, the programme is connecting young people across the globe to learn directly from each other.
"Young people are surrounded by media and family interpretations of different religions to their own, and rarely have an opportunity to develop their own views," Annika believes. "What we have looked at is how technology could help young people to learn directly with, from, and about each other, rather than learning about different religions, different faiths, different world views, from books."
These connections are being made by using new technologies to illuminate age-old belief systems. While she acknowledges the young people may not be experts in their particular faith, she adds, "They are experts in their own personal experience of faith."
Using video-conferencing and online communities, the organisation have begun to connect schools in 12 countries across the globe, embracing the Middle East, Asia and the Northern Hemisphere, with around 300 establishments wanting to get involved. This breadth of involvement demonstrates the thinking behind the scheme, and why it is important. "It matters because we now live in a globalised society," says Annika Small. "Young people growing up today are unlikely to just live within their own community, and so having an understanding of other peoples' perspectives is quite important if you are going to contribute to the global society." She also believes this approach can help to combat the rise in fundamentalism, "Which you could argue comes from a lack of understanding about different faiths."
Already, within its brief existence, the programme has begun to have an impact. Annika talks of links between schools in the United States and Pakistan, with students there discovering that people who don't subscribe to an organised religion aren't necessarily living lives of debauchery. "You really saw the lights go on," she says, "when they recognised that they shared an enormous amount of values." However, discussions are never immediately about religion, but about the impact of faith on thinking about, and understanding, global issues such as climate change. In fact in some places, such as the United States, direct teaching about religion can be illegal.
To help embed the programme in the curriculum, accreditation has been sought through both the International Baccalaureate and the Global Perspectives GCSE – although the need for a link to qualifications has not been as big an issue as expected.
Despite its early days there is evidence, including from continuing evaluation by Warwick University, that it is having an impact, and not just in schools. "The conversations we've had with various governments suggest they recognise it is an issue but haven't really known how to deal with it," says Annika Small. Whether Face to Faith is the answer it is too soon to tell, but she is realistic about the the way forward: "I'm optimistic but aware that there are going to be considerable challenges."