Schools and universities under attack: Education must be a safe space

“Education is an absolute necessity… for global peace, stability and prosperity for all.”  - Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict during Arria Formula Meeting on the issue of attacks on schools in October 2017

Each year, the UN recognises 9 September as the International Day to Protect Education from Attack. In 2022, the need for this day remains as critical as ever, and as an accredited educational institution, calls for an end to such attacks. Schools and universities should be safe spaces where individuals are free to learn and through which communities can work toward a better future. Instead, in many places, these institutions have become the targets of violent attacks.

According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), attacks on education are any threatened or actual use of force against students, educators and educational support staff, or educational institutions, resources and facilities. These attacks may be motivated by political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic, or religious reasons and can be triggered by internal as well as external parties.

Six attacks on education took place every day in 2020 and 2021

The 2022 Education Under Attack report revealed that more than 5,000 separate attacks on education and incidents of military use in school took place in 2020 and 2021, an average of six per day and a significant increase compared to the previous two years. Globally, more than 9,000 students and educators were harmed, injured, or killed in these incidents.

In Gaza, Palestine, around a quarter of all schools suffered bomb damage in May 2021. Following the countywide closure of schools and universities due to ongoing hostilities, access to education in Ukraine has been impacted for around 5.7 million children and adolescents between 3 and 17 years of age and more than 1.5 million enrolled in higher education institutions.

While attacks on schools were most common over the past two years, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, and Palestine, higher education students, staff and facilities have also come under attack, with more than 320 attacks being reported in 2020 and 2021. Over 580 university students or personnel were injured, abducted, or killed in incidents such as the fatal explosion near the Taizz University Faculty of Arts in Yemen. Another 1,450 were detained, arrested, or convicted. One such incident was the detention of 100 academics and higher education personnel for peacefully calling for payment of overdue salaries at Delhi University, India in 2020. 

As well as violent attacks on education, globally, schools and universities are used by extremist groups to recruit and radicalise young people. For this reason, operates a policy on the prevention of radicalisation and extremism.

Where educational institutions should be spaces where freedom of speech and belief are practised and critical and independent thinking is fostered, in many places these freedoms are threatened. Recent laws in some parts of the USA have severely restricted schools’ access to books that mention racism, sexism, gender identity, or oppression. While not violent, this constitutes an attack on the emotional and psychological safety of students and teachers as well as impacting the quality and diversity of education.

Furthermore, attacks targeting women and girls in education remain a critical issue. Notably, in Afghanistan, teenage girls are still banned from going to school.

In addition to attacks on education by external forces, like the above examples, it is important not to understate attacks from within education. An example of this that stands out is the devastatingly high number of school shootings in the USA carried out by school pupils. According to Education Week, there have been 27 US school shootings in 2022: averaging almost one every week of the year so far.

Attacks on education have devastating, long-term consequences for society

Not only do attacks on education violate international law and human rights, they also have an enormous negative impact on individuals, families, communities, and on society as a whole. As well as the horrifying risk of loss of life and injury, these attacks lead to students dropping out of education, to teachers leaving their jobs, and to extended - and, in some cases, permanent - school and university closures. The quality and quantity of education for affected students are diminished hugely.

Access to education is one of the key ways to alleviate extreme poverty, reduce economic inequality, promote economic growth, and contribute to addressing climate change. The impact of attacks on education, as with many injustices, disproportionately affects girls and women and marginalised communities, and therefore increases already existing inequalities and represents a significant step backwards in areas where gains have been achieved towards equality.

As highlighted by the United Nations on World Humanitarian Day on 19 August 2022, teachers play a critical role in supporting people in humanitarian crises. They provide continued learning, protection from abuse, psychosocial well-being, stability and hope for the future, contributing to making education the physical and psychological safe space that it should be.

Education should be a safe space

In the face of education being under attack, the Safe Schools Declaration was developed in 2015. To date, 114 states around the world have joined this international political agreement, committing to strengthen the protection of education from attack and restrict use of schools and universities for military purposes.

The declaration outlines guidelines to protect students, teachers, schools and universities in armed conflict. It seeks to ensure that every boy and girl has the right to education without fear of violence or attack, that every educator and education administrator be able to do their job in conditions of safety, security, and dignity, that every school be a protected space for students to learn, and fulfil their potential, even during war.

The declaration also goes beyond physical attacks, protecting universities as safe places for students and academics and to foster critical and independent thinking, and to harness knowledge. This supports Holley and Steiner’s 2005 article in the Journal of Social Work Education, which proposes a definition of education as a safe space: “The metaphor of the classroom as a ‘safe space’ has emerged as a description of a classroom climate that allows students to feel secure enough to take risks, honestly express their views and share and explore their knowledge, attitudes and behaviours… A safe classroom space is one in which students are able to openly express their individuality, even if it differs dramatically from the norms set by the instructor, the profession, or other students”. 

In line with this statement, it is clear that work must also be done to protect and prevent attacks from within educational institutions. This means actively working to eliminate hate speech and discrimination and safeguarding against radicalisation and extremism to ensure that education spaces - from primary and high school through to higher education institutions such as - are safe spaces for all human beings, and particularly for people in vulnerable and targeted groups.

While there are a whole host of external factors that educational institutions cannot address, there are many changes that can be made to facilitate education as a safe space. For example, revising and adapting curricula and teaching materials to be inclusive. Ensuring that lessons and resources are representative of people of diverse gender and sexual identities, races and ages and of people who are differently abled while being careful to avoid making stereotypes or assumptions about these groups is an important step to creating safe and inclusive spaces in educational institutions. 

Equally important, though it may seem obvious, is creating a space of respect for every student and staff member; listen to students and look out for the signs of bullying and - equally - of radicalisation in order to intervene when necessary. Finally, be aware of your own bias and be willing to learn and change if you hurt someone, even if unintentionally.

The core vision and mission of is embedding ethics in higher education and two of our core values are respect and inclusion/fairness. We work hard to respect the dignity of every person, to overcome exclusion and to recognise equality, justice, and fairness for all.

In fostering education as a safe space for all, we’re ensuring that it is inclusive, diverse, and accessible, key tenets of quality ethical education. In fact, one of the core workshops at our 2022 Building New Bridges Together International Conference looks at educational collaboration for the common good, how to ensure values in education with and for marginalised groups, and ethics and values for inclusion with a focus on bridging the digital gap.

Register for the conference now to take part in vital and pertinent dialogue on the ways to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

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