The talking shop that's teaching world peace

Long popular in the US, student-led simulations of United Nations summits are now bringing a global mindset to British sixth forms
9th January 2015, 12:00am
Darren Evans


The talking shop that's teaching world peace

In the United Nations Security Council, delegates are holding an emergency debate about what action to take over Russia's alleged aggression towards Ukraine.

Representatives from the UK and the US are calling for intervention, but the delegate from Russia is outraged at the accusations being made. The room is thronged with reporters, eagerly monitoring their every word. Photographers capture the intense negotiations on camera.

But these are not international diplomats and journalists, and this is not New York; this UN session is being played out by teenage students in a sixth-form college in the centre of Birmingham, England.

Model United Nations is a tradition closely associated with US schools. The event is growing in popularity in UK schools and universities, but it is still rare in the further education sector.

This particular institution, Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, claims to be the first - and largest - state-funded FE institution in the UK to organise a Model UN event. The lack of an accreditation body makes that hard to prove, but Richard Nelmes, head of outreach at the United Nations Association UK (UNA-UK) - an independent charity that promotes the work of the UN - says the practice is expanding rapidly in the post-16 education sector.

World-beating skills

First or not, Joseph Chamberlain's Model UN is impressive. Held across a weekend in March, from Friday to Sunday, it involves more than 250 students representing 40 countries across six individual committees, culminating in a grand session of the UN General Assembly.

Students who do not represent countries take the roles of the secretariat (the administrative side of the UN, which facilitates the debates) and journalists (who produce printed and online coverage of proceedings to be distributed during the event).

Student delegates are assigned countries and committees; they spend weeks beforehand researching their roles and drawing up resolutions.

The weekend is spent lobbying other students for votes in favour of their resolutions, then debating them - formally and informally - in their committees. If they receive enough votes, the resolutions are debated by the full UN Council on the final day; typically only a handful make it through.

It's easy to see why Model UN is an attractive addition to the post-16 curriculum; not only does it improve students' knowledge of global politics and international issues, but, with concern growing about the skills gap between education and employers' needs, Model UN is a unique way of developing crucial expertise.

The principal of Joseph Chamberlain, Elly Tobin, taught internationally before arriving in Birmingham and was keen to give her new students a global perspective on life through Model UN. "They learn how to walk in somebody else's shoes and represent countries they might know nothing about beforehand," she says. "They develop a sense of international mindedness and become more rounded global citizens."

Although the college appears ethnically diverse, with many Pakistani and Somali students, it is culturally rather narrow: more than 95 per cent identify as Muslim.

Teacher Thomas Williams, who runs the event, says that many of the students exist in a kind of "urban bubble", unaware of life beyond their friends, family and community.

"Model UN is a way of offering that diversity; a window into a world that has lots of different traditions, values, beliefs and problems that don't exist for our learners," he explains. "Obviously our priority is academic excellence, but we want students leaving here not only with the best results but the experience and skills for living in a globalised world."

United we stand

The students agree. Giuzialia Aisaev, 19, a third-year student studying maths, further maths and English, representing Sri Lanka, says: "I think it's really important. You see the news and hear about world events and maybe discuss them with people, but it doesn't really have an impact. With Model UN, you feel more united, that you are part of this bigger world."

Arslaan Mahmood, a 17-year-old who is studying politics, philosophy and English literature, representing France, adds: "You are shocked by the amount of countries in the world, many of which you hadn't heard of before. There are so many people out there. From that you can determine where you are in the world. You can shape your own views. It has made me much more aware."

The experience helps students to develop skills that are useful in the classroom, such as research, organisation, empathy and analytical and critical thinking; it also encourages attributes that will help them in higher education or employment, like public speaking, teamwork and confidence.

"Part of the success story of Model UN is that it gives students confidence in their own skills to put forward their ideas and to debate with anybody," Mr Williams says. "In the past, some of our students have struggled with that self-confidence."

Mahmood agrees that it is a positive experience. "The best part is meeting new people," he says. "I have always found it difficult to speak in front of people but now I'm more confident."

Joseph Chamberlain invites other schools and colleges to take part in its Model UN, which often inspires them to set up their own events. Loreto College in Manchester has sent students to all four of Joseph Chamberlain's UN weekends. Fran Tattersall, head of computing and ICT at Loreto, says she has seen her students develop and mature as a result.

"It is a wonderful, absorbing educational experience for them," she says. "They get stuck into some really complex issues, have to solve problems, think on their feet and represent views that they don't necessarily agree with.

"It makes them understand that not everyone in the world feels like them and that they have to see both sides."

More than 100 miles away on the windswept South Glamorgan coast, students are taking part in a Model UN session in an altogether different setting. Atlantic College in Llantwit Major is an international residential sixth-form school that is home to 16- to 19-year-old students from more than 90 nations around the world.

It is part of the United World Colleges movement, which is dedicated to ending global conflict and promoting peace, so it is no surprise that international politics is a central part of the curriculum. But unlike in their regular lessons, students at Atlantic College are in total control of their Model UN.

Chiel Mooij, a teacher of global politics, says: "It's very much student-led. We want them to experience the organisation and learn from their experiences along the way. We are in the background but it's really up to our students. It's great to take a step back and let them run with it."

Global gathering

All of Atlantic College's 350 students take part in the annual two-day event and the regular curriculum is suspended. The five students overseeing operations choose the team that will succeed them the next year, selecting those they think have proven themselves.

Mooij says the event helps students of different backgrounds to understand issues from each other's points of view and brings them together. It also gives them a greater understanding of the UN and how it influences their lives.

"The tremendous energy, confidence and empowerment they gain from these two days is then fed back into their academic studies - it's remarkable," he adds.

UNA-UK's Nelmes says he understands why Model UN receives such high praise. "It's an incredibly exciting tool for teachers and students alike," he says. "The scalability is attractive; anyone can take up Model UN and run it in virtually any context. I have run them in an hour with no preparation, and I have run ones that take up a whole weekend.

"It offers something that's different from most things students experience in the classroom. They find their niche in a way that they wouldn't do in their usual lessons."

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