Over the past year, school children in the United Kingdom have made paper chains, sold lapel badges and circled their playgrounds in human chains to protest against the unfairness of Third World debt and to demand action from political leaders. Last month President Clinton announced his intention to wipe out nearly $6 billion of debt owed to the United States by some of the word's poorest countries.
Is there a link? Jubilee 2000, the coalition of more than 100 organisations which spearheads the debt cancellation campaign, replies with an emphatic yes. "It's been a chain reaction," says the coalition's Lucy Matthew. "The reason the politicians took notice of the high-level lobbying we were doing was that they were made very aware of the overwhelming number of people who supported it."
Debt cancellation has been seen as the most impressive single-issue campaign since the anti-apartheid movement, surprising even seasoned campaigners. The explanations are many - involvement of celebrities, particularly pop star Bono, the strong media coverage, the involvement of churches and the approach of the millennium. Whatever the reasons, school children have played a part in a very real policy change that will make a serious difference to the lives of some of the poorest people on the globe.
Debt is just one of several issues - fair trade, clothing, genetically modified organisms - that permeate popular culture and show how people's lives are interconnected across the globe. They can be used to learn about the reality of the lives of those in other countries, such as in the manufacture of jeans or trainers in south-east Asia. Crucially, acquiring such knowledge demands an awareness of how decisions made in the UK, by individuals as well as governments and multinational companies, have an impact on people across the world.
But campaigning is not the same as education. Warning bells ring for many teachers about the dangers of welcoming charities into the classroom. Protesting the unfairness of debt is a legitimate act of citizenship, but doesn't guarantee that genuine learning has taken place. Given that many adults are hazy about the difference between the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, isn't financial geopolitics too difficult a subject for schools?
Julian Jacobs, Oxfam's campaign manager for the Midlands, points out that British aid agencies have drawn up guidelines about fund-raising and campaigning with schoolchildren. He believes bringing adult-oriented debt campaign materials into schools can be wrong. Materials in schools should be educationally-based, designed to help children make an informed choice. Asking children to write a letter asking Chancellor Gordon Brown to reform the IMF is overt campaigning, he says, not broadly educational.
The materials for Oxfam's Give it Up for Ghana campaign, from which the charity expects to raise pound;200,000 this year, separate fund-raising from education so they can be used at a teacher's discretion. The materials have been developed by Oxfam's development education specialists and tested with teachers. "We recruit teachers not children," says Julian Jacobs.
"If you say to a 14-year-old, by the time you retire you will have spent a million pounds, almost pound;100,000 of it in a supermarket, you can then talk about how that affects people in the Windward Islands growing bananas, and in Ghana, growing cocoa. It is dramatic and it makes a link with what otherwise seems like it is going on at the other side of the world."
The argument that some global economic issues are too complex for schools is wrong and insulting, according to Stephen Fairbrass of Norfolk Education and Action for Development. His project, Just Business, has been awarded a Department for International Development grant of pound;160,000 over three years to encourage teachers and teacher trainers of economic and business studies to integrate a global ethical dimension into the teaching.
The concepts required to understand globalisation are no more complex than many others already taught, and can readily be understood at A-level and, with simplification, at GCSE, says Stephen Fairbrass. He acknowledges the dangers of oversimplification, but argues that the teachers in other subjects happily face the challenge. "The basic chemistry studied at age 11 is a massive simplification compared to what students do at A-level or degree level. That doesn't mean you don't do it. You start somewhere."
Economics and business studies are natural starting points, as our increasing global interconnections are driven by the globalisation of markets. "The interrelations between countries are becoming stronger and more noticeable," says Stephen Fairbrass. "If young people are to play a role as global citizens, they need to be aware of the forces that are going to shape the world."
Bisi Williams, development education specialist with ActionAid, has experience of introducing potentially difficult subjects into the classroom - the currently hot global topic of genetically modified organisms. Her secret is to start simply - breaking down the concepts, not using jargon. "You wouldn't necessarily even use the term GM until well into the lesson. Assume nothing," she says. She also uses diagrams with colourful images and advocates a stepping-stone approach "It works on the technical side of genetics, such as the terminator seeds, but the same teaching methods can apply to the moral and political issues involved." She sees no lower age at which the ideas cannot be introduced.
Again, she stresses the need for education rather than pressure group propaganda. "It is important not to be anti-GM, because the technology is already here. But we can get the idea across that people should have choices in the matter."
On the Line, a project run by Channel 4 and various charities focusing on the millennium, and linking countries that lie on the meridian line, demonstrates the thirst that exists in schools for global education. More than 300 schools are setting up linking projects, with another 4,500 having registered their interest. The pilot project focused on storytelling - with children from schools in Greenwich hearing stories from a Ghanaian teacher, then researching and sending back to Ghana tales from their local area. "It opened up their horizons," says Catherine Dooner from On the Line. "They become global citizens, seeing how their actions have an impact on the world."
Global educators from aid agencies and campaign groups recognise that schools present a crowded market place. So from a teacher's point of view, it is a buyer's market - offering plenty of choice to raise awareness and understanding of the issues that children growing up as global citizens will need.
web addresses:www.ontheline.org.ukhttp:www.worldbank.orghttp:www.jubilee2000 k.org
* President Clinton has offered to wipe out the $5.7 billion owed to the US by 30 of the word's highly indebted poor countries.
* By comparison, the amount of money raised by Live Aid for famine relief, itself a vast fund-raising effort, was just $200 million - around the same amount as Africa pays the West every week in debt repayments.
* On average, each person in developing countries owes pound;345 to the West. Many of these are people living on 60p a day.
* Zambia spends more on debt repayment than on health and education combined.
* The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund between them employ more than 10,000 bureaucrats, advisers and civil servants.