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Kids have the right to make us question war

There is no more relevant issue for citizenship than a conflict in which children are killed and maimed, says Henry Maitles.

HAVE to be honest. I applaud those school students who decided that the attack on Iraq was so important that they wanted their voice to be heard.

If they thought that it meant taking a (very short) period of time off school to show how strongly they regarded the issue, then I think that is justified.

Indeed, to suggest it is truancy and compare it to the very real problems of school non-attendance in some areas seems ridiculous. To suspend students who took part in protests, as has been the case in some parts of England, sends out exactly the wrong message.

There are many who feel otherwise. To some adults and teachers it seemed to be a chance for a "skive" or that there was manipulation by adults. But there is little evidence to show that the vast majority of those who did demonstrate did so for anything other than honourable intentions. To suggest otherwise is to be patronising, condescending and fail to understand strongly held feelings.

Both the Crick committee on education for citizenship and democracy and the Learning and Teaching Scotland review group on education for citizenship discussed the supposed cynical, self-centred and apathetic nature of young people. Facts, such as very low voter turnout by the 18-24 age group, are used to show this apathy. And, indeed, there is a very low turnout of young people in elections - although, as the 1999 Scottish Parliament election and 2001 general election suggested, it is not only young people who have abstained from the process.

Yet research into pupil attitudes has suggested that young people are moved by issues such as animal rights, the environment, Third World poverty, homelessness and pollution. They might not be bothered with the election of the Speaker of the Commons or committees of the Scottish Parliament or be able to name the shadow Cabinet, but even young children can tell you about Greenpeace or the Big Issue or the rights and wrongs of experimentation on animals. They might not be interested in "Politics" but they are in "politics".

To adults, that can seem contradictory: don't they go together? But for many school students, the latter is about things they are passionate about; the former cynical and boring. Indeed, in some ways their attitude to the parliamentary system can be summed up in the words of London mayor Ken Livingston: "If voting changed things, they'd abolish it." And, when feelings run high as over Iraq, young people will do things that some adults regard as unpalatable.

Yet we need to understand that, in any process involving the development of ideas around citizenship, rights and responsibilities and democratic ideals, school students don't only learn about democracy, they learn through democracy and it seems natural to protest in the way they have. As the main political parties are finding out, young people (and the not so young) are shying away from membership but are becoming increasingly involved in single-issue campaigns and pressure group activities, which seem to have an impact and are much more immediate than joining political parties.

Obviously, how schools reacted to the outbreak of war affected pupil response. Media images are so real, so immediate, so violent and public opinion so delicately split on the issue that many felt the need to articulate their views in a variety of ways. Some schools (primary and secondary) created space to discuss the issue while others shied away from it. Where there was discussion, all the evidence is that teachers conducted things with their usual professionalism.

In this case, that was not enough to satisfy many pupils. They felt strongly that their voice needed a public focus, that demonstrations, stopping the traffic and sit-down protests were what would grab media attention, make the headlines and make even hard-nosed politicians pay attention.

They were telling us that this war is not solely an adult war, reminding us that some 40 per cent of the Iraqi population is under 14 years of age, that many of the victims of war will therefore be their age and that many school students do not like what was being done in their name.

Whatever our views on the war, shouldn't we be congratulating them for making us think more deeply about the issues?

Henry Maitles is head of social studies education in Strathclyde University's education faculty.

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