The wreck of an oil tanker has lessons for us all on conflicts of interest, writes Valerie Hall. On July 15, the foundering of the Sea Empress off the Welsh coast is set to happen all over again, but this time the disaster and its consequences will be simulated in a project on the Internet.
Five schools from Avon, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales are each being allocated one of the following roles: the oil company, an environmental group, the tourist industry, the council and a newspaper office.
They will be using a resource pack specially tailored for their group. The packs contain authentic materials put together by a team led by Martin Tibbets, head of Cheslyn Hay Primary School, Walsall.
"We have been trawling the Welsh coast for information," says Mr Tibbets. "The Milford Haven Port Authority and environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth have been helpful, and we have obtained some shocking, previously unpublished photographs of the damage, and of animals affected by the oil slick. And the group playing the council will have real agendas and minutes. "
"All groups will have an initial on-going task," he continues, "which will take a dramatic change of direction once the news stream comes on line. " As the day goes on, the conflicting interests of each group will emerge.
The oil company, for example, is struggling to make a profit and has been forced to compromise on tanker safety, the tourist industry is trying to stem the tide of rising unemployment and is keen to promote the area as a holiday resort and wildlife haven, and the council in charge of mop-up operations is performing a juggling act and may, Tibbets hints, "have to do a deal".
He and a colleague, Chris Warren, will be holed up in Chesterfield in front of Warren's computer, which is linked to the CampusWorld on-line and Internet service. Acting as agents provocateurs, they will at times throw spanners into the works by, for example, releasing tapes of conversations, forcing the groups to modify their decisions accordingly.
Maldwyn Pryse, head of Ysgol Wlaningel, Aberystwyth, one of the participating schools, is "looking forward to seeing my Year 5 and 6 pupils realise they may have to compromise in their decision-making. The project covers several curriculum subjects and will be a good lesson in group dynamics. I see e-mail and the Internet as an essential means of bridging the gap between our rural school and what's going on in the outside world".
The initiative has attracted funding from the Information Technology in English Project and is regarded by Tibbets as a "dummy run" for his ultimate ambition of running a network of different projects involving European schools.
* Martin Tibbets, Cheslyn Hay Primary School, Saredon Road, Walsall WS6 7JQ. Tel: 01922 412527. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org