Education International welcomes the move by the United Kingdom to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, committing itself to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities during times of violent conflict.
On 19 April, the United Kingdom (UK) Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, announced his government’s endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). Johnson made the announcement at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London.
The UK has become the latest country to endorse the Declaration, joining two-thirds of the Council of Europe and three-quarters of European Union members in committing to protect education in armed conflict. By endorsing the Declaration, states agree to take specific steps to reduce the risk of attacks on education, including by using the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict as a practical tool to guide their behaviour during military operations.
Military use of educational institutions disrupts education and can also turn schools into targets for attack by opposing forces. It can put students at risk of death, severe injury, child recruitment, sexual exploitation, and psychological harm. Girls and women may be disproportionately impacted: girls and women were targets of attacks on education because of their gender, including through sexual violence, in at least 18 countries worldwide during 2013-2017.
The UK has already made some positive changes to its military doctrine in recent years. For example, in 2016, the Ministry of Defence released a doctrine note on Human Security, which recalls that the UN Security Council Resolution 1998 “declares schools […] off limits for both armed groups and military activities” and that “schools and other educational establishments must be permitted to continue their ordinary activities”.
The GCPEA welcomed this latest UK move. “The UK’s endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration represents a doubling of countries that have signed on in under three years,” said Diya Nijhowne, GCPEA’s director. “With the UK, this includes 14 Commonwealth countries that have joined the Declaration: such momentum should serve as a clarion call for the remaining Commonwealth members to unite in these crucial efforts to protect students and educators living in conflict zones.”
Nijhowne also stressed that “as the second permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the seventh current member overall, to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, the UK can play an important role in encouraging other countries to join”.
NEU: “Step in the right direction”
Welcoming the announcement, National Education Union (NEU) Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney said the union is “delighted that the UK Government has pledged to sign the Safe Schools Declaration. This is a step in the right direction”.
The NEU will monitor how the UK government puts this pledge into practice, he warned.
NASUWT: Opportunity to persuade other governments
“The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) welcomes the UK Government’s belated endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration,” said NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates.
“Education is a fundamental human right but, both at home and abroad, the right to education is too often undermined or denied because of violence, intimidation and abuse of children, young people and their teachers,” she added.
All schools must be places of safety and it is right that all governments take seriously their responsibility for ensuring that schools are safe and secure, Keates emphasised. The “UK government has an important opportunity to use its international programmes to persuade other governments to end the militarisation of schools and to ensure that all children and young people enjoy a safe and happy childhood within and outside school”.
The Safe Schools Declaration is a political commitment originally championed by Argentina and Norway. It was first opened for endorsement at the Oslo Conference on Safe Schools in May 2015.
The GCPEA’s forthcoming flagship report, Education Under Attack 2018, to be released on 10 May, documents a pattern of attacks that occurred in 28 countries around the world from 2013-2017, including six Commonwealth members – Bangladesh, Cameroon, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan. All but Bangladesh are also among the 29 countries where military use of educational facilities by armed parties was reported during the same period.