School sign in Sarajevo

rallying round

Reva Klein looks at the future of citizenship education after the end of the war

We have become used to thinking that British youth are too apathetic or selfish to engage with politics. But in recent weeks, the phenomenon of child-dominated anti-war rallies across the UK has taken us by surprise.

What do schools do with the passions that have been aroused by these events? The rallies may run out of steam after a while, but the issues that have fuelled them will live on: issues to do with the way democracy works (and doesn't work), the notions of just and unjust war, how to campaign lawfully and appropriately to bring about social change, resolving conflict and seeing the world as a global community in which we all have rights and responsibilities...

Citizenship education was made for just these situations. It creates a space in which views can be expressed, debated and analysed in an emotionally safe environment. "This is a wonderful opportunity, albeit a sad one," says John Lloyd, senior adviser for Birmingham education authority. "Pupils can develop skills for political literacy in key stages 3 and 4, through focusing on skills of inquiry and communication and by expressing their opinions rigorously, rationally and responsibly."

Education for citizenship encourages discussion on a range of issues that current events have thrown up. Take the relevance of parliamentary democracy and the question of how a country can go to war without referring to public opinion.

The subject of legality is equally pertinent: while the attorney general says the war is legitimate, many disagree because it lacks a UN mandate. And human rights is emerging as an issue riven with double standards. How, for instance, can the US claim a breach of the Geneva convention in the treatment of American prisoners of war when the long-term detention of al-Qaida suspects at Guantanamo Bay is seen as legitimate?

At Deptford Green school in Lewisham, south London, citizenship is emphasised throughout the school. It has created a culture of democracy, where pupils are encouraged to express their views about issues within as well as outside the school. Every year starts with a topical issue and this year, presciently, it was Iraq.

Peter Pattison, a citizenship outreach worker, explains how the school has been dealing with the build-up to the war and the events now unfolding. "We looked at its history: how Saddam came to power, the role of Britain in the Middle East since the second world war, the Iran-Iraq war and the impact of sanctions. We have been looking more recently at the media's representations of events, comparing tabloids taking different positions as a way of developing critical thinking skills.

"Part of our approach is saying that there must be a 'change action' at the end of each project, something that has potential to effect change outside the classroom. So, in this case, pupils wrote to the Mirror and the Sun to express their views. The Mirror published five of their letters."

For a school like Deptford Green, where large numbers of pupils feel marginalised due to long-standing social deprivation in the community, it was a particularly powerful exercise. "When the letters of acknowledgement came back from the newspapers, my pupils didn't believe it. They thought I had stuck the letterhead on some paper and written the letters myself," says Pattison. "These are kids who don't go on marches and rallies. But this helped them to feel that they have a voice and can, in some small way, bring about change."

Different issues challenge pupils at Mill Chase community school in Bordon, Hampshire. Many have parents in the armed forces, some of them in combat now. Chris Waller, head of PSHE, says that there is anti-war feeling within the school and it has to be handled sensitively. "Some have expressed their concerns about the war and some were vocal in their opposition, but it has been tempered by the knowledge that many of their friends have parents or relatives stationed in Iraq."

Waller decided to deal with the diversity of views by organising an after-school debate, with the motion 'this war is undesirable and there should have been other ways of dealing with the situation'. The motion was carried by the 35 participants, but it was decided they should support the British armed forces now that war had begun, rather than risk undermining their morale.

Discussions take place spon- taneously during lessons, too. "When students raise issues in class, some teachers shelve scheduled lessons in favour of ad hoc discussions. There has been a groundswell of feeling among staff that because of the nature of our pupil population and the concerns they've been expressing, this is work worth doing."

With his own pupils, Waller has worked on the question of what happens when war ends. "As a result of previous project work, and from their parents' experiences, they know that large numbers of children are killed by unexploded ordnance (UXO). So they decided to collect names for a petition to send to the government asking for assurances that all UXO will be cleared. This helps them see this war in the bigger picture; that we're part of a global community that has a responsibility to reconstruct after the war."

For those at the frontline of helping children to make sense of a war that, for many of us, defies logic, the important thing is to encourage young people to ask questions, and, in Waller's words, "not be taken in by the glossy hardware and the steady stream of misinformation coming from certain sectors of the media. We have to be sympathetic to children from different upbringings and cultures but the key issue is to keep the debate open and sophisticated."

Tuesday April 1, 2003
The Guardian

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