Joint efforts by government and Islamic schools in Victoria after global events including the Christchurch shootings highlight their critical role in encouraging social cohesion.
Following the recent tragedy in New Zealand, students from Islamic and government schools are coming together to discuss issues of safety and wellbeing to break down barriers.
Sheikh Alaa El Zokm, Imam of Heidelberg Mosque and former teacher at the Australian International Academy, said he believes the youth are the main people to bring about change.
“I always say the youth are the main pillar of any community,” he said. “With their strength and enthusiasm, they are the ones who can cause change in this country.”
“I’m honestly amazed at the work Victorian schools are doing to improve the relationship between students of all religions through interfaith gatherings to increase their knowledge of these religions.”
Schools are increasingly taking the initiative to invite different religious leaders to speak with their students, emphasising the importance of having a cohesive relationship between all communities.
Reverend Emily Fraser, Chaplain at Lowther Hall Anglican Grammar School, said the youth is “where we get this energy to know more because our young people do care”.
“I think so long as our young people keep that energy and remain interested and asking questions, there will be forward progress”, she said.
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino chaired a round table with leaders from local Islamic schools for a discussion on how best to support young people in Victoria.
He told the Legislative Assembly on 1 May of the agreed “series of actions to address student safety” following the tragedy of the Christchurch attacks.
At the meeting, issues faced by schools and students regarding personal safety as well as social and emotional wellbeing were also discussed as a crucial requirement for social cohesion.
According to the Victorian Education Department, government schools have a comprehensive range of programs that contribute to social cohesion to ensure students are safe and well.
However, a recent survey by the Department of Education and Training found that only 62 per cent of high school students agree that their schools provide a safe environment.
Both Sheikh Alaa and Reverend Fraser agree that schools are playing an increasingly critical role in providing a platform to bring about social change.
“The main issue we have is the unknown,” Sheikh Alaa said. “We all have to reach out and educate our brothers and sisters in humanity as much as we can.”
“Allowing students to share is when we break down barriers,” Reverend Fraser said. “That’s where we begin to open eyes and hearts and to see the humanity in one another.”
Prior to the meeting with Mr Merlino, Muslim school leaders had a discussion about social cohesion in schools with the Australian National Imams Council.
“We gave them some recommendations of solutions to discuss with the government in terms of encouraging state schools to participate in interfaith programs,” council member Sheikh Alaa said.
The Victorian Opposition however says school children should focus more on reading, writing and mathematics instead of learning a “politically correct agenda”.
The Liberal Party’s plan to place a greater emphasis on “the principles of Western enlightenment” received huge criticism from the Minister for Education.
“Social cohesion should be realised in all aspects of classroom teaching and learning,” he said. “We all need to take a stand against hate.”