International crisis in the sports hall

The Ministry of Defence puts pupils in the hot seat when a civil war breaks out in an oil-rich country in Asia. Fiona Leney reports

An international crisis has broken out on the other side of the world, and a press conference is about to start at Featherstone School in the London borough of Ealing. Two hundred and twenty Year 9 children file into the sports hall to hear how their classmates aim to resolve the situation. They are in role as journalists from the British press, expected to question the prime minister and his cabinet, who are presenting their plans at the press conference. It is the climax of a day's presentation by a Ministry of Defence team as part of the citizenship curriculum, aimed at enhancing understanding of how government reaches decisions during a crisis.

It has been a lively day, with questions about Afghanistan and the Iraq war. The overwhelming majority of the mixed secondary's 1,300 pupils are Asian, from a small catchment area in Southall. English is the second language of 98 per cent of the pupils, either because they are first-generation immigrants or, more usually, because they speak another language at home.

The children begin by eagerly suggesting sending troops to resolve the conflict, but they have to realise, says Lieutenant Bromwell, that there are many other ways of dealing with an international situation. "The aim of the presentation is to help children understand how the armed forces, government departments and non-governmental organisations all work together to resolve a crisis," he says.

The day starts with a convincing audiovisual presentation. A fictional south-east Asian country, Dacan, has erupted into civil war as ethnic groups fight over oil wealth. Caught in the middle are British expatriates working in the oil industry. Borders are sealed and there is a growing risk of drought and famine. Nearby are British forces deployed as UN peacekeepers, and a warship on manoeuvres. There is a newscast on the crisis, the opinion of a fictional expert, and footage of the prime minister being briefed.

Children are then put into teams of six and allocated roles, as the prime minister and his cabinet put together their plan for resolving the crisis.

As Bombardier Graham Gould tours the room, suggesting ways of "persuading"

the Dacan government to negotiate, a hand goes up: "Please sir, how can Britain get bank accounts frozen?"

The agenda is perhaps a little ambitious for many of the pupils. Almost all struggle with the concepts of international law and the powers of the UN, but all are caught up by the relevance of the scenario. "The initiative is actually targeted at Year 10s," Lt Bromwell says. "That's the age group we believe can get the most out of these concepts."

To fit in with timetabling difficulties, the MoD has adapted the presentation to suit Year 9. Kate Johnson, Featherstone's citizenship co-ordinator, can see that the younger children lack the maturity to get the most from the presentation. None the less, she says, the package is teaching them important citizenship skills, such as communication, how to work in groups, and the practical considerations behind current affairs.

"The fact we have so many first or second-generation immigrant children and many from war-torn areas makes this a very relevant topic," she says.

"These brought-in days are well-funded and resourced and it's exciting for kids to see a soldier in uniform. The enjoyment they get makes the political aspect of the curriculum much more interesting, but while presentations like this make the subject live for the children, we find it is most effective to combine them with our own in-house projects, which allow us to hone the curriculum specifically for our school."

Typically, a presentation will be preceded by a lesson one week before, to give the children some familiarity with the concepts that will arise on the day. Lessons in the subsequent weeks will reinforce the presentation, and ensure its relevance to the children. "We also seek to balance, where necessary, views from outside, so that the children get an overall picture of the subject," Kate says.

As the MoD team conduct their international crisis in the sports hall, other citizenship activities are going on elsewhere in the school. In the main hall Year 10s are discussing how to rescue a failing business as part of a young entrepreneurship workshop. In an upstairs classroom, Year 8s are inventing a healthy fast-food snack as another entrepreneurship task.

More than one third of the input into citizenship classes for all years comes from off-timetable days like this one, a combination of presentations like the MoD's and in-house activities. The school runs the days together into two week-long slots of citizenship activities, one in the autumn term and one in the summer, when the normal timetable is suspended for presentations, in-house activities, theatre projects and museum or gallery outings.

"It makes planning for the whole school so much simpler," says Kate. For example, the Year 9s who are listening to Lt Bromwell's team today have already had a study-skills day and a team-building sports day. They will be looking forward to a museum or gallery visit, and enterprise, women's and global poverty days later in the year.

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