The Scottish Executive is trying to raise awareness about the shortage of organ donors, but not without a hint of propaganda, says Marj Adams
About 50 people in Scotland die each year while waiting for an organ transplant operation. At the end of 2002, 609 people were on the waiting list for an organ: 577 for a kidney, 21 for a heart or heart and lungs and 18 for a liver.
Last term the Scottish Executive sent out an Organ Donation Teaching Resource Pack to every secondary school with the aim of producing a nation better informed about organ donation and transplantation. The pack has been developed for use in personal and social education and religious and philosophical studies and the Executive maintains that it has been designed not to pressurise pupils into giving consent to organ donation but merely to inform them of the options.
The pack, developed with advice from Learning and Teaching Scotland and HM Inspectorate of Education, includes sections on ethical and religious issues, transplant laws and the need for transplants, the transplantation process, donors' and recipients' stories, a question and answer section and activity sheets with quizzes. It is supported by a video featuring real stories concerning organ donation and transplantation.
The pack's section on ethical dilemmas in a range of scenarios is not innovative with its examples but it is very useful as a springboard for discussions. Pupils respond vigorously to issues such as a convicted killer receiving a new heart.
Undoubtedly secondary pupils are interested in organ donation and pertinent issues and the pack contains a plethora of interesting and useful information. Basic statistics, such as more than 5,500 people in the UK are waiting for organ donation, will be welcomed by teachers. There is also a significant amount of medical information. Most of it is reasonably well explained, although teachers may not want to burden pupils with terms such as primary biliary cirrhosis or peritoneal dialysis.
What the medical information demonstrates is the extent to which the pack is intended as a resource for teachers and not, in any way, as an off-the-shelf lesson and it is disappointing that there has been no effort to supplement it with possible lesson plans. Teachers will need to do a great deal of work to make the materials 100 per cent pupil friendly.
The short video is described as a general introduction. The stories are very moving and include the death of John Michael Murray, a fourth year pupil at Holy Rood High in Edinburgh, who died on New Year's Day, 2000. One of the first actions his family took was to offer his organs for transplantation (TES Scotland, January 14, 2000).
The video certainly held the attention of my pupils. However, some were frustrated by the brevity of the clips on each family. They would have liked more information from their perspective.
Another problem was a technical one: the strange technique is used to fade key words and statistics in and out. We could identify no purpose to this and pupils at the back of the class could not read the text.
The most damning criticism of all from my pupils was that the underlying tone of the video was that of hard sell, the very thing the Executive was aiming to avoid. This is so unnecessary when the real life scenarios are effective in portraying the issues. Even the voice-over by Dougie Vipond had an almost funereal edge to it.
I should mention that I was viewing the video from a personal vantage point, in that my late father's life was prolonged by a kidney transplant (his surgeon is quoted in the pack), so I understand the frustrations of the medical profession regarding the shortage of organs for transplantation. Nevertheless, the pulling of emotional strings went beyond what I felt comfortable with in a classroom.
It is vital to remember that the target audience is young people, who prize their autonomy as decision makers. They must have the freedom to arrive at their own moral destinations. Any hint of coercion, however subtle, could hinder that journey.
I am not even sure teachers should be showing this video without parental permission, at least with reference to the under-16 school population.
The development of the pack was one of the key recommendations in the ministerial transplant group's Organ Donation Strategy for Scotland published in July 2002. It is dispiriting that the Executive hasn't succeeding in avoiding even a shard of propaganda. This is the only way to make sure that our pupils gain an incisive perspective on one of the most clamant issues of modern medical ethics. We can not tell our pupils what to think.
Marj Adams teacher religious studies, psychology and philosophy at Forres Academywww.uktransplant.org.ukOrgan donor line, tel 0845 6060 400