Ignorance is not bliss

A little girl splashes around in the sea, surrounded by golden sand. She is smiling and carrying a bucket and spade, apparently oblivious to the scene unfolding behind her - a child being roasted, hog-like, over a bonfire by two cannibals.

This is not a scene from a horror movie. The image was created by a 10-year-old British pupil asked by her teacher to draw her impressions of Jamaica.

The picture, revealed at a meeting of more than 100 representatives from British schools and universities and agencies such as Oxfam and Christian Aid, is typical of the sort of ignorance - some might call it isolationism - alarming academics, educationists and relief workers.

So last week's meeting at London University's Institute of Education, held jointly with the Development Education Association, set out to find ways of raising awareness of world affairs and global perspectiv es in schools. The demands facing adults in the 21st century will differ from those of the past, so teachers of the next generation must start to meet that challenge now.

The symbolism of the girl in the picture turning her back on suffering has a poignancy in the context of global citizenship - knowing there is pain, famine, drought and war in the world but lacking the will or the know-how to tackle it.

The conference heard that misguided and misinformed images of the world, and a lack of values, were not confined to children's perceptions of far-flung lands. Cathie Holden of Exeter University 's School of Education told delegates of an experiment in which pupils were asked to discuss the impact of the Roman Empire on modern Europe. Some of the young people equated Europe with Paris, and were surprised to learn that Rome still existed. Others thought Europe included Japan, China, Asia and America. One associated the Continent exclusively with Disneyland.

Their misconceptions were perhaps less surprising given the attitudes of some teachers, she added. Young trainees at Exeter believed values such as citizenship, which enable people to work and live together, should be taught only through RE and personal and social education, or were for parents to instil at home. Some even believed they could be taught through television.

Not until the new recruits had completed a 10-week course in global perspectives as part of their initial teacher training did they recognise it was possible to give children a taste of "the real world" through cross-curricular teaching.

A working group of the conference will now draw up a charter, or set of principles, which would signal the start of a cross-curricular approach to global awareness and the confrontation of issues such as war, famine, over-population and pollution - problems from which, they believe, no nation is exempt.

The work of the group has Government support. Professor Michael Barber, special adviser to the improvement and standards unit of the Department for Education and Employment, assured the meeting of the Government's commitment to world citizenship.

Pointing out the paradox of the need for world awareness as nations were increasingly devolving power locally, he said teachers had a pivotal role in creating a generation of school-leavers who saw themselves as global citizens.

But there was also a need for young people to feel involved in their own communities, participating in a democratic nation.

"There is a huge chunk of people in the inner cities who are out of the political system. We have to get them involved, with the confidence to join in. It is about having the self-confidence and the voice to speak up when it matters, " he said.

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