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A Taliban vision of education

12 April 2013

IN NEW YORK last week, Malala Yousafzai announced that the fund she had set up after she was shot by the Taliban is to launch its first project, providing education for 40 girls from the Swat Valley in Pakistan (News, Comment, 19 October). This, she hopes, is only the beginning: "Let us turn the education of 40 girls into 40 million girls."

Malala's inspiring story is a testament to the transformative power of education - for girls, but also for all children who are currently excluded because of poverty or lack of opportunity. She knows that education is not just about stuffing facts, or even gaining qualifications: it is about enriching life. This is why education is so prized by the poor and the young in Third World countries, and why reactionary and sectarian groups such as the Taliban strive to keep girls away from it.

In Britain, universal access to education is taken for granted. Yet we rarely see it as having the potential to transform lives. School is something to be got through, a necessary chore on the way to adulthood.

The debate about the state of our schools (teachers' unions v. Michael Gove) is sterile. The point is not whether the curriculum and the teaching methods are "progressive" or "traditional", but whether what is offered arouses curiosity and desire for knowledge, skill, and mastery - and, crucially, whether our education system enables children to see themselves and each other as moral agents, capable of making a difference in the world.

Millions of Third World children understand what we refuse to see. Our problem is not just about failing schools; it is not just about the way in which teachers and parents so often betray poor children by their pathetic lack of aspiration. It is also about middle-class parents, treating education essentially as a commodity, a passport to more money and a better job rather than about the forming of persons. They see schools as an exam factory, not as a moral community in which being present to one another is the most vital part of the curriculum.

Our schools were once sustained by a vision both Christian and humanist: that everyone matters, and everyone can make a worthy contribution if their gifts are encouraged. Without such idealism, it is not only our schools that are failing: it is our society and way of life. The Taliban are not the only ones who are capable of destroying hope.

The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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