A familiar sight that stirs pupils' sense of justice

15th January 2010 at 00:00
After a project which involved donning the orange jumpsuits that evoke images of Guantanamo Bay, pupils from Bannockburn Academy were selected to join Amnesty International's youth advisory group

The stark attire was familiar from constant sightings on news bulletins, but its impact had been dulled by repetition. Then, a few years ago, a pupil in an orange jumpsuit walked on stage during a Bannockburn Academy assembly. People sat up and took notice when a "Guantanamo Bay prisoner" appeared before them.

The idea was that of the school's Amnesty International group. It has been shining a light on human rights abuses for five years, and its efforts were rewarded recently when two members were invited to join Amnesty's UK- wide youth advisory group. They are the only representatives from Scotland.

The school group - one of 56 in Scotland - was started by English teacher Jeanette Mackay. She observed that few pupils had any idea what Amnesty stood for, but did have a thirst to explore complex moral issues, such as whether China should have been awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. There was also widespread enthusiasm for campaigning zeal from the 2005 Make Poverty History project.

"Young people are not particularly engaged in terms of political parties, but they are in the sense of human rights, morality and justice," Mrs Mackay says. "I think Amnesty gives them a key to help with that."

She believes the big advantage of signing up to Amnesty - which offers special rates for schools - is that pupils are not simply learning about human rights abuses from afar, but becoming "part of the answer".

Between 10 and 20 pupils, mainly S3-6, turn up to the Thursday lunchtime group, to discuss which issues to prioritise. Recently, they have written Christmas cards to people incarcerated around the world and explored the difficulties faced by women in Iran. They joined a march from Stirling Castle last month for the White Ribbon campaign, which aims to ensure men take more responsibility for reducing violence against women.

The group also has changing topical displays outside the school's main office, raising awareness, for example, about Guantanamo Bay, Women's Aid, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Although the group's numbers are relatively few, its impact has often been profound. S5 pupil Aime Jaffray, one of the two Bannockburn pupils on the UK advisory group, recalls a nerve-racking assembly last year when, as a fourth-year, she had to speak to most of the school's fifth and sixth- years about human rights.

This dovetailed with a powerful talk from Mrs Mackay on torture, including a video showing the waterboarding form of torture. Aime, 16, remembers the buzz that raced around the room, and a subsequent increase in numbers at the group. To this day, people still stop and ask her about waterboarding. "It really shocked them," she says.

Amnesty provides insight that will not be gleaned from TV news, explains the other Bannockburn pupil on the UK advisory group, Louise Paterson. She cites a film showing a Guantanamo Bay warden telling his daughter he loves her, intercut with the same man beating a prisoner: "I had never seen a video like that before."

Although plenty are willing to sign petitions against Shell's practices in the Niger Delta, for example, which are being targeted by Amnesty for damaging the local environment and health of the community, Louise believes many pupils do not join because they are daunted by the issues involved, or do not want to make the commitment required.

The first of three 2009-10 meetings of Amnesty's UK youth advisory group introduced Aime and Louise to 29 other young people whose passion knew no bounds, however, and gave fresh impetus to their own enthusiasm. In their year of membership, all will have travelled to London three times to tell Amnesty what they think of its campaigns and how to get more young people to join.

Mrs Mackay has noticed that commitment to Amnesty does not fade after pupils leave school, and Aime may be a prime example. She wants to pursue a career she would never have considered without the Bannockburn group - as a human rights lawyer.

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