Persuading pupils that distant tin-pot dictators have no monopoly on human rights abuses can prove tricky. Peter White reports
Ask any group of people to consider human rights and their thoughts will almost certainly turn to inequalities and abuses of power in developing countries - few people automatically consider the problems in their own back yard.
Charlotte Carter's A-level politics class at grant-maintained King's Norton Boys' School in Birmingham is fairly typical. "What breaches of human rights lie behind these?" Ms Carter asks, handing out a clutch of political cartoons from around the world. The students pore over them, and in a few minutes proffer views on causes and symptoms relating to international conflicts, mass unemployment, overseas aid, industrial pollution and the conflict in Northern Ireland. The class draws on its previous work to identify relevant issues such as justice, peace, dignity, equality and indivisibility. They might not all be able to pronounce reciprocity, but they sure know a breach of it when they see it.
Although quick to see human rights violations in other countries, the pupils have less to say about a cartoon that exposes Westerners' self-deception about overseas aid. Their right to know what their own government is doing does not spring readily to their minds as a problem.
The point is reinforced when Ms Carter introduces the Oxfam Charter for Basic Rights. Students' thoughts turn to the undernourished and those who lack access to clean water education or health services. That means stereotypical images of Third World deprivation. Extending the view to encompass UK malnourishment, poverty, prohibitive water charges and inequalities of health will take time.
Dr Audrey Osler of the University of Birmingham and secretary of the Education in Human Rights Network is convinced local perspectives are needed just as much as global ones. "Human rights are not just an issue in Indonesia or Nigeria - they are an issue here in Birmingham," she says.
Dr Osler helped write the book Ms Carter's A-level group will use later this term. "We developed a project called Learning to Participate, which looked at local development and human rights issues. We took the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and identified key barriers to human rights in the local community - one was poverty, another housing, another racism," she says. King's Norton students will focus on their own city, looking at ways to maximise the social, economic and political rights of the greatest number, and examine the reasons for conflicts.
But human rights education does not belong merely, or even mainly, to advanced study in politics or humanities. The concepts can be taught from an early age. "Justice and fairness, respect for others, resolving conflicts without violence - you can teach those with a nursery or primary class," says Dr Osler. "You can introduce more abstract notions in subjects such as history and geography, personal and social education, and language, economics and politics.
Even these formal teaching approaches are only part of the picture. As head of Year l0, Ms Carter works informally with a lunchtime group. They call themselves the "problem-solving group". Their teacher sees what they do as conflict resolution. It began as a way of working with children who resorted too quickly to sorting out problems with their fists. They have learned to listen, understand others and deal directly with bullying and fighting. Fourteen-year-old Chris explains: "It gives us self-confidence and helps us get out of situations. Before, when people picked on us, I'd retaliate. But now I can avoid conflict. I've learned to ignore it and rise above it." He is obviously proud of his improved disciplinary record.
Ms Carter's challenge is to spread this approach to the whole year group, a task for which she has the enthusiastic support of the "problem-solvers". Such work is in line with a Council of Europe recommendation on teaching human rights in school, signed in 1985.
As well as curriculum-based skills and knowledge, human rights teaching is about developing the climate of a school. "Democracy is best learned in a democratic setting where participation is encouraged, where views can be expressed openly and discussed, where there is freedom of expression for pupils and teachers, and where there is fairness and justice," says the Council.
Ever the optimist, Ms Carter is nevertheless dismayed at how little human rights work has penetrated into schools. "Far too little time, money and effort is put into human rights education. Too much happens on an ad hoc basis, " she says. Dr Osler agrees. "In France, when the Council of Europe recommendation came out it was sent with a letter of commendation to every school in the country. Here local education authorities received nothing," she points out.
The low level of human rights education is disappointing, although perhaps unsurprising, given that teachers are often unsure about bringing politics into the classroom. But advocates stress that with an internationally agreed set of principles and guidelines to underpin the work, teachers can feel confident.
There is a simpler reason for teaching about human rights - under international agreement, children have a right to it.
The Education in Human Rights Network has about 300 members, with a newsletter, resources, ideas and issues. It is holding a summer school in Birmingham in May. For details contact Dr Audrey Osler, School of Education, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT. Tel: 0121 414 4847 Teacher Education and Human Rights, by Audrey Osler and Hugh Starkey, Pounds 14. 99, David Fulton Publishers