Schoolgirl holding a discus

What excited me about working on Syrian School was the possibility that we could un-pick some of the stereotypes that we in the West hold about the Middle East and the Islamic world in general. For example, on a superficial level, while there is undoubtedly a rise in the number of young girls wearing the hijab, who would have thought that at the same time below their necks and on their iPods, young Syrians are eagerly exploring Western tastes and fashions, without compromising their closely held Arab heritage?

...there’s a strong sense in Syria that the Muslim world is being misunderstood and undermined by the West.

Syria is a Mediterranean country, just over the border from the edge of Europe where you still feel a strong French colonial and Soviet political influence. Syria has a vehemently secular, Ba’athist government whose influence runs deep into the everyday life of these State schools. Few people in the UK would imagine Syria as a socialist and secular state. Syria sees itself as the guardian of pan-Arabian nationalism, but this Arab identity includes large Druze and Christian minorities and there is a powerful tradition of religious tolerance there that is quite at odds with the Western stereotype of austere Islam.

Max Baring with Amal and Lina

We made this series at a time when East and West seemed further apart than ever, with the so-called 'Clash of Civilisations' raging across the world. Just as we in the West sometimes feel misunderstood by the Islamic world, there’s a strong sense in Syria that the Muslim world is being misunderstood and undermined by the West.

Even though Syria is an authoritarian one-party-state, there is still a culture that holds that ideas can change the world.

Perhaps, then, it was no surprise that the students and teachers we filmed were both curious about the West whilst simultaneously remaining suspicious of our motives; they really wanted us to redress the imbalance they perceived in the western representation of Islam and the Middle East. Certainly in the Palestinian school we filmed in Al Yarmouk refugee camp this suspicion was bordering on anger, as we began to film shortly after the Gaza war.

However, this anger was never individualised or directed against us personally. Indeed, we had some fascinating debates between the crew and the classrooms as together we tried to find a common ground from which to create our films’ stories. Ultimately, their eagerness to show their lives overcame these barriers. The Arab culture is nothing if not generous.

Syria is a country where, from poetry to politics, you can have an intellectual debate. You can re-imagine the world there in a way that we seem to have lost in the West, where even the credit crunch hasn’t dented the orthodoxy of Liberal Capitalism, where “The X-Factor” seems now to have become the cultural pinnacle.

Even though Syria is an authoritarian one-party-state, there is still a culture that holds that ideas can change the world. Jump into a taxi in Damascus you will end up debating art, politics or even religion with your cabbie. Maybe it’s not surprising that the oldest capital city on Earth raises a wry eyebrow at the notion that we have reached the 'End of History.'

More on education around the world