Conflict that is far from black and white

29th October 2010 at 01:00
State of Emergency allows pupils to experience and judge a national crisis

The streets look familiar - this is clearly a contemporary European city. It even sounds familiar with everyone speaking in English. But there is much that is incongruous, in particular the armed insurgents patrolling the streets, their faces hidden under balaclavas and scarves - the so- called Freedom Brigade.

They have wrested control of the city from the government, but the government wants it back and the international community is on its side.

For a week next month, pupils in seven Scottish secondaries will be shown, via the internet, a daily instalment of State of Emergency. They will watch as youngsters like them, living in streets like theirs, find themselves in a war zone.

Every day they will bear witness to the escalating conflict as their contemporaries post video updates online in a bid to give the outside world a window on the crisis.

Each episode lasts just five minutes and is designed to get the S2 pupils, at whom it's aimed, thinking about the complicated nature of conflict.

State of Emergency has a light-hearted beginning, with the teenage characters relaxed about the fact that, thanks to the recent violence, schools and colleges have shut up shop. They are content to while away their new-found spare time with some of their favourite activities: lusting after each other and bantering.

"Independence is cool," one remarks in a blase manner. "It's a laugh."

But by the end of the first five-minute instalment, no one is laughing. Government troops have stormed the city to regain control. There are explosions, bursts of gunfire and people are no longer safe and secure in their homes.

Many issues are raised. Are the insurgents good or bad? Do they deserve to be "neutralised" by the government? What happens to the people who flee the city? What about those who can't or won't leave? How are water and food supplies affected? Are the people who steal to survive wrong? And perhaps, most pertinently, when foreign powers step in with the seemingly laudable aim of restoring democracy, what are the consequences?

There is plenty for schools to work with and build on, says Louise Ironside, a regular writer on BBC dramas River City and Waterloo Road, who penned the webisodes.

"We just took a whole load of themes and information and threw it at the wall and let the teachers pick off what interested them," she says. "For instance, at one point the camera focuses in on the Freedom Brigade logo on a pair of trainers. An art teacher could use that to explore the power of image and the role of propaganda in conflict or it could be simply ignored - it's up to them."

Certainly the seven schools are taking the same stimuli, the web-isodes, and using them in myriad ways. Each school has been assigned an artist by Visible Fictions, the theatrical production company behind State of Emergency. Its remit is not to work with the pupils, but to support the teachers to unleash their imaginations.

All the evidence would suggest it has worked. At one school, a helicopter will actually land in the playground; in another, a refugee camp will be built. One secondary has even arranged for the army to swoop into the hall and demonstrate how they would respond if a bomb exploded nearby.

Staff have been letting their creative juices flow and providing Ms Ironside with feedback since the first draft of the webisode scripts was posted online in February.

Ms Ironside was "horrified" her work was going public at such an early stage, but teachers being partners in the writing process, asking for themes to be teased out or added, was always part of the plan.

One teacher was so taken with the repercussions of the insurgency for the economy that it rubbed off on Ms Ironside and became a bigger part of the drama.

"He latched on to the trading, the black market, the bartering and the smuggling. It was a small element initially in my mind but it grew because of that feedback process," she says.

Another teacher suggested it would be interesting to touch on the plight of refugees, so that theme was also introduced.

State of Emergency is "Anne Frank for 2010", sums up Ms Ironside. Chloe, the main character, begins filming initially as a project for college but latterly simply as a record - "You get that sense of an unfolding situation and we are privy to one person's point of view." The video diary format worked well, she adds, because, with each episode only minutes long, some of the story could be told through narration instead of long, dramatic scenes.

The online diary also made sense because pupils will actually be watching the clips via the internet, through the schools' intranet Glow, points out Visible Fictions' artistic director, Dougie Irvine.

State of Emergency is one of the 10 projects funded through Co-Create, a collaboration between Learning and Teaching Scotland and the Scottish Arts Council, which invited arts organisations to come up with innovative uses of the intranet. It was through Glow that teachers read the early scripts and at the end of the week pupils from the seven schools will come together for debate and discussion via the intranet.

When Ms Ironside first heard about the project, the brief was wide: a handful of five-minute dramas about war. The decision was taken to set them in a contemporary western country to make them recognisable and relevant to pupils.

"War can seem a distant thing even when our country is engaged in it, because it's not happening on our doorstep," she says.

Mr Irviac adds: "We're hoping that even though we don't ever say it's the UK, that pupils will still have a connection and feel a stronger sense of empathy. As soon as you say this is happening in France, it becomes a French problem rather than just a problem."

The dramas also muddy the waters deliberately when it comes to "the goodies and baddies", as Ms Ironside puts it.

"We keep all the questions open, so that hopefully they will be constantly looking for who is right and who is wrong. But war is a grey area and there is rarely a true moral right or wrong."


Katherine Morley is one of State of Emergency's "creative provocateurs". It is her job, as one of seven artists working to inspire schools, to fire up teachers and their imaginations.

Ms Morley describes herself as a theatre director and a creative learning specialist. She is working with Greenock Academy in Inverclyde, where pupils are coming off timetable for three days to take part in State of Emergency, which will run for a week next month.

During this period, the cohort of 100 S2 pupils will be divided into five groups taking on the roles of journalists, the army, aid workers, refugees and the besieged (civilians who stayed at home).

The five-minute online dramas will get pupils thinking about the complexities of conflict and then, in their groups, they will explore some of the dilemmas and choices raised.

To inspire them in their roles, a series of experts will visit the school: Natasha Astill, a young Glasgow doctor who worked in Bwindi Community Hospital in Uganda for a year; Captain Ben Morgan, an intelligence officer from 3rd Battalion, The Rifles, who got back from his latest tour in Afghanistan in April; award-winning journalist Zaiba Malik; a representative from the Scottish Refugee Council; and Rikki Payne, who has seen the consequences of conflict in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia through children's charity Rise Phoenix.

Pupils will also receive a suitcase packed with stimuli relevant to their standpoint. This could be rations, medical supplies or communication devices. However, they won't always get exactly what they need.

Some of the topics covered will be common to all the groups, but some will be tailored. The journalists will look at interviewing, broadcasting and photography; the refugees will discover how to generate electricity; and the aid workers will learn about first aid, raising funds and coping with supply shortages.

"The project is brilliant because it's not about me delivering a workshop to pupils. It's about supporting teachers to achieve and accomplish their creative ideas," Ms Morley says.

The army, navy and air force are involved in Cumnock Academy's plans for State of Emergency. Pupils at the East Ayrshire school, which has been working with artist Eoghann MacColl, will take on an assault course set up in the school grounds and get to grips with orienteering.

The academy has also recorded its own news bulletins, which will be shown to pupils as well as the webisodes, to keep momentum going. S5 pupils played the part of newsreaders and recorded the clips on a visit to the STV recording studios. These will be shown to S2 pupils as new developments arise.

"The army will simulate what happens, should a dirty bomb go off nearby," says depute head Jim McMillan. "They will come in dressed in chemical suits and take over the hall. It's not an Orson Welles thing; we are not trying to create hysteria. If a pupil asks if this is real, they'll be told the truth and just to go along with it."

The S2 pupils will look at nutrition through home economics; bacteria and disease in science; building temporary housing and shelter in technical; and sources of information and their reliability in English.

On the final day all seven schools - Clyde Valley High, North Lanarkshire; Lochend Community High, Glasgow; Cumnock Academy, East Ayrshire; Bathgate Academy, West Lothian; Holy Cross High, South Lanarkshire; Greenock Academy, Inverclyde; and Tarbert Academy, Argyll and Bute - will come together via Glow for discussion and debate.

State of Emergency runs from November 15-19. To follow the project see: GLOWNational Glow GroupsCo CreateGlow GroupState of Emergency. Scripts and information about what each school is doing will be available on Glow at the end of the year. If you want to introduce State of Emergency at your school, contact Visible Fictions:

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