The time for rethinking security in the classroom is now. With ‘conventional wisdom’ failing to set sustainable approaches to security, Isabel Cartwright makes the case for peace education and a relational approach to education that focuses on inclusion, equity and guardianship of the earth.

When did we learn some of the things that are accepted as ‘conventional wisdom’? When did we learn that the main threat to our security is other people beyond our borders, and people ‘othered’ within them? When did we learn that deterring attackers with threats is the best way to stay safe?

This is not ‘knowledge’ we are born with. It is something that we are taught, explicitly or implicitly. Although advocates of this thinking would claim it is just realistic and rational, this learning is rooted in fear. We are educated to arm ourselves, yet somehow this never reduces the fear.

The Doomsday Clock, which uses detailed analysis to identify things we rationally should fear, has been set to 90 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been. It makes clear the failure of so many purported security strategies. The time for rethinking security in the classroom is now, for education is powerful – powerful enough to visit insecurity on many people. This also means that it is powerful enough to help us recognise that another way is possible.

Transforming education and identity

Edward Kissi, one of the contributors to the Democratic Education Needs Imagination (DENI) initiative, notes that the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire, Hitler Youth in Germany, European Settlers in Colonial America, Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Interahamwe militia in Rwanda, have all been educated products of the classroom. In Australia, Canada and the United States, schools were used to assimilate the original populations and destroy their cultures. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just the latest example of how highly educated societies can perpetuate war and violence.

That’s perhaps why the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4.7 is explicit that peace and nonviolence is part of quality education, along with education for sustainable development, human rights, gender equality and global citizenship. Calls to decolonise the curriculum, school strikes for climate action, campaigns against disinformation and for upskilling in digital and media literacy show that many young people recognise this need to radically reorientate education. They feel let down by the current system. They are calling for a transformation that will give them the tools to address the challenges facing our interconnected and rapidly changing world. 

There are signs of change. A key aim of the new Welsh curriculum is to create ‘ethical informed citizens of Wales and the World’. The Scottish Government is funding every school to join UNICEF’s Rights Respecting scheme. The number of children studying Citizenship GCSE is increasing. But as the DENI initiative observes, education-based laws, regulations, structures and institutions are largely yet to catch up.

A relational approach to education

Quakers in Britain recently published ‘Peace at the Heart: A relational approach to education in British schools’, and an accompanying series of short films, to make the case for peace education and highlight schools and approaches which are focused on inclusion, equity and guardianship of the earth. We conceptualise a multi-layered approach, aiming for:

  1. Individual wellbeing and development (‘peace with myself’);
  2. Convivial peer relations (‘peace between us’);
  3. Inclusive school community (‘peace among us’);
  4. The integrity of society and the earth (‘peace in the world’).

The fourth layer perhaps relates most clearly to Rethinking Security’s area of work, but the four layers are interconnected. ‘Se’ (without) ‘cura’ (care) – security – is also about our inner peace. Toxic security approaches that are rooted in, even prey upon, fear are not good for inner peace, or inter-personal peace. Living behind a wall teaches you to fear what is on the other side.

The pandemic has intensified concerns around inner peace, often framed as mental health, both inside and outside school communities. When a small group of teachers and restorative practitioners created ‘RESTORE’ – a lens to help the whole school look at what’s needed for everyone’s wellbeing following Covid-19 – their website received tens of thousands of visitors. There’s huge interest in education in practices such as mindfulness, and trauma-informed approaches, and increasing recognition that wellbeing is crucial for academic achievement.

Many schools are already actively building skills for peace. Bacon’s College in Southwark have embedded peer mediation to such an extent that their sixth formers work alongside the local mediation service helping adults in the community resolve their disputes. Carr Manor Community School in Leeds has put relationships at their centre and seeks to use the balance of peace-keeping, peace-making and peace-building approaches outlined in Hilary Cremin and Terence Bevington’s book Positive Peace in Schools. They have weekly ‘check-ins’, ‘check-ups’ and ‘check-outs’. Young people are trained as ‘restorative practitioners’. Exclusions have dramatically reduced, in contrast to the national trend.

Exploring the roots of war

But what about the fourth layer of our model, exploring the roots of violence and war, and rethinking security? As someone who engages regularly with schools I expect a less positive response, anticipating concern about campaigning in or ‘politicising’ the classroom. But the reality is that this isn’t often the case. Instead there seems to be a growing recognition, not just amongst young people, that the survival of humanity and our planet hangs in the balance – the permacrisis.

YouGov polling commissioned by the Nuclear Education Trust (NET), shows 56% of UK adults are now worried that a nuclear weapon might be used in the next two years. Like the public at large, most teachers surveyed are in favour of more information, debate and education about disarmament. Tellingly, 93% of teachers disagree or strongly disagree that Nuclear Disarmament Education is too political to be taught in schools.

There’s growing awareness that it’s better for children’s wellbeing to explore the issues they hear about through the media, and social media, safely in the classroom, rather than try to protect them from challenging issues by avoiding them. Our lesson ‘Would you fight in Ukraine?’ proved our most popular resource last year. As with all our peace education resources, we strive to include a combination of intellectual rigour, emotional engagement and ethical reflection. When the ‘Teach Peace’ pack received a Teachers’ Choice 2022 award, the judges commented on how it eases fears, fosters hope and develops moral compasses.

In Peace at the Heart we call for the governments of England, Scotland and Wales to explicitly recognise a duty to educate for peace. This needs to be accompanied by investment, research and teacher training to ensure schools not only ‘teach’ peace but ensure the school structures and processes allow for peaceful cultures to develop. A peaceful school, just as a peaceful world, doesn’t have peace enforced from above, but builds it together.  

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Quakers in Britain, cover of ‘Peace at the Heart: A relational approach to education in British schools’,