Playing soldiers just got serious

A British Red Cross initiative asks pupils to imagine they are under threat

You are caught in a civil war and the militia is kidnapping teenagers from their beds at night to fight for them. The chances of returning alive are slim. You are 16 years old. You do not want to fight.

Secondary pupils are being asked to question what they would do in such real-life situations, as part of a new classroom initiative by the British Red Cross.

The resource encourages teachers of citizenship to deliver lessons about international humanitarian law. It looks at issues such as torture, child soldiers and weapons of war, as well as the role of the United Nations.

Children are also asked to imagine what they would do in a range of situations involving difficult humanitarian choices. For example, they look at the case of a 16-year-old Ethiopian boy who went into hiding to escape armed militiamen.

They are also encouraged to discuss a photograph of a young boy posing happily with a machine gun and cartridge belt.

Andy Lloyd, of the British Red Cross, said: "Stories on the news are conflict, conflict, conflict. We want to help students make sense of that, to understand why conflict happens, how it affects them, how we respond to human suffering."

While pupils are unlikely to come into contact with an armed militia, Mr Lloyd hopes they will be able to apply their understanding of conflict to their own lives. For example, after looking at the reason for becoming a child soldier, pupils can discuss the reasons for joining a street gang.

"We look for concrete answers," Mr Lloyd said. "We want this side to be good and that side to be bad. But few issues are black and white.

"Conflict is a complex thing. Hopefully, this will give them the ability to deal with the complex world around them, whether it's a big international conflict or a conflict in school."

Hetan Shah, of global education charity DEA, agrees. "Playground bullies and child soldiers are on the same continuum," he said.

"In effect, you're shutting down your sense of empathy for others. Discussing news stories around the world can help students to grapple with the world around them."

Tony Breslin, of the Citizenship Foundation, said: "Teachers need to push beyond the immediate crisis and raise profound questions about how these crises arise."

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Adi Bloom

I am one of the reporters at the TES, specialising in educational research, eating disorders, sex education, gender issues and, worryingly, teachers who appear on reality TV.