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Fuel to fire imagination

Teachers should not shy away from controversial topics for fear of heightening racial tension. Stephen Lucas reports

Many teachers fear tackling controversial topics such as the Iraq war could fuel racial tension in the classroom, according to a two-year study.

Research by Birmingham university found they lacked confidence and did not feel prepared to teach controversial issues. Some feared the lessons could heighten ethnic tension.

The Iraq war, 911 and anti-Semitism are among topics covered in global citizenship - a subject concerned with social justice and world affairs that is part of citizenship, English and geography.

The TES Make the Link campaign aims to boost pupils' awareness of global issues by promoting partnerships with schools in other countries.

Summer term will be a good time to look at issues such as education for all, eradicating world poverty and sustainable development because they will be high on the international agenda in the run-up to the July summit of the G8 group of wealthy nations, of which Britain holds the presidency this year.

Professor Lynn Davies, director of the centre for international education and research at Birmingham university, said: "Children want to know about global issues.

"Teachers have a duty to respect that need and to take risks and try to raise controversial issues without making tensions any worse."

Teachers, pupils and council staff were interviewed for the Birmingham study which was commissioned by the Government. Lessons were observed in six primary and six secondary schools, 13 local authorities and three teacher-training institutions in the West Midlands.

A secondary teacher said: "I'd like to do something more controversial but it would be very difficult to manage. A Jewish teacher has said he would happily come in, but I don't think he'd have any idea of the hostility that would face him."

At the Anglo European school in Ingatestone, Essex - where citizenship has been taught for 30 years - teachers are shown how to tackle controversial topics by the school's history teachers.

Such topics include the human rights implications of the new anti-terror legislation, abortion, capital punishment, and media myths surrounding Aids.

David Barrs, deputy head, said: "Controversial issues should not be avoided. We say they should be dealt with in a balanced way."

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