Disaster headlines from the developing world about war, famine and disease prompt plenty of pupil interest, but with resources tight and teachers short of time, responding to immediate demands for complex information and simple answers is never easy.
Standard textbooks rarely help, while curriculum-linked development education materials designed for the long term may not meet such specific needs. As teachers improvise with calls to aid agencies and development educations centres, these usual sources of information on the South find it hard to work at the speed of disaster.
Hoping to help is Manchester's Development Education Project, which, if it secures European Union funding, plans to send out "Rapid Response" materials form mid-1996. Cathy Midwinter, Manchester DEP's curriculum development worker, says the idea has been debated for 10 years amid clear teacher need but a lack of aid agency capacity.
A small survey showed that almost all teachers discuss international issues in the news, such as Bosnia and Rwanda, with pupils. Most wanted more discussion, and greater curriculum time for global issues. Reliant on the media and aid agencies, their main constraints were uncertainty about the approach and the lack of accessible information. They were willing to pay several pounds for each pack, and were keen for it to contain visual material, teachers' notes and items challenging media stereotypes.
The three-year project, called South in the News, plans to highlight Southern perspectives which teachers say they cannot get from TV or newspapers, using a range of sources, including an international network of journalists via the development information agency Panos, to cover newsworthy events whether expected or sudden.
"We hope to get out a two-page briefing note in three days," says Cathy Midwinter, "but for a Rwanda situation, where the crisis is obviously going to be in the news longer, we might turn around an eight-page pack in a week. We aim to give teachers the confidence to talk about the issues in the news by being sure of the facts and the approach to take.
"We will be distinctive in three ways: materials will be accessible for teachers and children, written with classroom and curriculum in mind; we'll go direct to the country and its peoples to include Southern perspectives; and we'll provide what's missing from the media with clear context, potted history and maps."
South in the News packs will be available on subscription by mail, over the Internet and through the network of development education centres that link together through the Development Education Association.
While some media, from BBC's Newsround to Comic Relief and the Guardian's EG section, give a fuller picture of the developing world, disasters can mean relentless negative images undermining previous development education efforts.
Andrew Hutchinson, head of education at the Save the Children Fund, says: "Disasters activate children's compassion, they see grim images of massacres on the telly and want to do something, which is picked up by teachers. Demand is instantaneous, calls come in fast. The images children see are stark and apparently simple, of victims suffering, but they don't reveal causes, leaving teachers anxious to deepen understanding".
Hutchinson is cautious about instant response: "One problem has been the pressure to produce something fast. A little analysis usually reveals complex political situations. Somalia may have appeared to be simply about getting food aid through amid chaos, but it is actually difficult to explain. There is a danger that disasters distract attention from development education, but used imaginatively, emergencies can raise fundamental development issues."
Oxfam's development education projects advisor, Pete Davis, feels it is "alarming that we hear from more teachers when a disaster takes place than when we promote development issues. We don't have the resources to do something for every disaster, so we prioritise. When Rwanda happened, there was nothing available to support teachers trying to help pupils understand a bloody genocidal conflict, so we produced materials rapidly by using the knowledge of our overseas desk and drawing on a recent book."
An early pack on crisis was Oxfam's Disasters in the Classroom, devised in the Eighties but recently dropped from its resources catalogue for revision. It offers classroom exercises for most ages around almost any disaster, and can still be found in development education centres and Oxfam's regional education centres.
Newsworthy issues, including some disasters as they happen, are covered in bi-monthly mailings on subscription from the Centre for Education in World Citizenship. On topics as diverse as peace keeping or the religious background to terrorism in France, each pack contains an eight-page A4 "broadsheet" for sixth-formers and teachers; a four-page digest for younger pupils; and activity sheets to encourage debates and role play.
Concern about charity pressure for schools to fund raise is waning, as many responsible aid agencies have decided not to "cold mail" teachers, even when disasters happen, but to respond when pupils make the first move. Aid agencies have also learned that blatant plugs in education materials are a turn-off for teachers and pupils.
Teachers are battling to use disasters despite the problems. Rachel Powell, head of upper school history at Burnage High School Manchester for boys aged 11-16, thinks some teachers avoid controversial issues because they lack materials. "Children watch the news and want to know what's really going on. They have a sense of justice; if they see suffering they get angry. We must be sure we've got information of high quality to tackle all the misconceptions. Money is tight, but something like the rapid response packs would definitely be worth the money. It's very important, teachers need the information and can't get it from newspapers."
For information, send a large SAE to:Anne Strachan, Rapid Response Project, Manchester DEP, co Manchester Metropolitan University, 801 Wilmslow Road, Didsbury, Manchester M20 2QR; Development Education Association, Third Floor, 29-31 Cowper Street, London EC2A 4AP; CECW, Seymour Mews House, Seymour Mews, London W1H 9PE; Oxfam Education, 274 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 7DZ; SCF Education, 17 Grove Lane, London SE5 8RD
Media consultant Nick Cater is external editor of the annual World Disasters Report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.