Curriculum - Where do we go from here?

23rd October 2009 at 01:00
The French authorities recently closed the grim migrant camp outside Calais known as 'the jungle'. But sympathy for those living there was tempered by fear that 'they' might come to the UK. Meabh Ritchie reports on how citizenship lessons can give asylum a human face

When the French immigration minister shut "the jungle" - Calais' squalid, makeshift immigrant camp - in September, there was sympathy for the 800 immigrants who had traveled there from all over the world in the hope of finding a better life. But the Home Office wasted no time in assuring the British public that they would not be coming to our shores, even though the UN stated that by turning them away we would be in breach of international law.

For citizenship teachers, stories such as these provide a rich seam of issues for discussion. In Manchester, Mark Krantz, a former citizenship teacher at Lostock High School, remembers all too well the attitudes of his pupils when groups of Kosovan refugees came to the city a decade ago. "There was a 'refugees welcome here' campaign and there was a lot of support because we (British troops) were fighting there in the late 1990s. But pupils were coming out with stuff like, 'Them asylum seekers have taken my granny's flat,' and we thought we had to do something about it."

Immigration and the plight of asylum seekers and refugees touches on a range of complex and emotive issues. The topic lies in the citizenship curriculum for key stages 3-4 under the identities and diversity strand, but it is also relevant to history, geography, politics and English. The syllabus requires pupils to learn about how migration has shaped communities, common and shared identities, and political, economic, social and cultural changes to society. KS4 has the additional topic of the role of the media in shaping public opinion and communicating information, as well as the origins and implications of diversity in UK society.

In citizenship classes, Mr Krantz organised a series of workshops with Kooj Chuhan, an artist with multimedia collective Virtual Migrants. But when it was explained that the aim of the project was to try to tackle racism and prejudice against families who had moved to the area, the pupils were hostile to the idea and did not want to get involved.

"We had to rethink," says Mr Krantz. They changed course, starting instead with lessons about society in general and then the varying experiences of British young people at public and state schools. "We found that discussions based around simple human concerns, which avoided words such as 'asylum seeker' yet focused on the same issues led to a completely different perception by the students, one which was universally sympathetic," adds Mr Kratz.

In literacy, pupils studied Benjamin Zephaniah's Refugee Boy, which tells the story of 14-year-old Alem, who escapes the Eritrean-Ethiopian War and moves to live with a foster family in London. This helped to break through the asylum-seeker label and encouraged the class to identify with his situation.

Working with the drama department and Virtual Migrants, the students made a series of short films in which they engaged in debates about the issue and campaigned for Alem to be allowed to stay.

Approaching the problem of immigration from the perspective of the individual is vital if young people are to have a more empathetic approach, particularly if they live in a closed community without much experience of other nationalities. "There's no amount of political arguing or rational debate that can counter their attitudes. You have to get inside their heads," says Mr Kratz. "If we had first said, 'Alem is an asylum seeker,' they would not have wanted anything to do with him. It's only after they realised that's what he is."

Pupils and the public alike tend to see the terms refugee, asylum seeker, illegal immigrant and human trafficker as part of the same "problem". They have sympathy for those living under a repressive regime, demonstrated recently in support for the Iranians penalised for demonstrating against President Ahmadinejad. But this tends to change when the debate shifts to migrants coming to Europe.

Citizenship is the place to connect the human experience of conflict with the lengths people will go to leave their war-stricken homes and the wider issue of where immigrants can seek refuge and the conditions in which they live when they arrive here.

Sokol Hoxha first came to England from Albania seven years ago and is now in his second year at Leicester's De Montfort University, reading international relations and politics. He recently worked on a report commissioned by the National Institute of Careers Education and Counselling and Leicestershire Connexions for which he spoke to young asylum seekers about their experiences in the UK.

"I couldn't believe what they had been through," he says. "One of the young people was put into a hostel for adults but he was only 14. He couldn't speak much English and was told to get on with it. It's the luck of the draw."

Mr Hoxha is glad of the educational opportunity he has had in this country, but says he was bullied at school when he first arrived and his English was not fluent. "Teachers need to explain why people are here. Countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan are in the middle of a war. Their parents might have been killed," he says.

"Young people might not know what's going on because they won't read the news. They'll welcome young asylum seekers more if they understand - that's human nature."

But before discussing the issues raised by the camp closure at Calais, or the growing number of Afghans living in Britain, there needs to be a culture of acceptance in the school and a context so that pupils can empathise.

Caedmon Primary School near Middlesbrough is in a predominantly white, former steelworker community and has had high levels of unemployment for generations. When two refugee families moved to the area five years ago, one was taunted by locals while another had their house torched. The teaching staff decided to deal with the issue through a cross-curricular, international scheme of work, which worked towards challenging prejudice.

Simon Feasey, the school's international and special-needs co-ordinator, decided to take football as his starting point. "We looked at the controversy surrounding Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics in 1936," he says. From there, they read John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in literacy and organised a trip to Auschwitz with some pupils from the local secondary school.

International links were forged with schools in Denmark and Greece and then in Nigeria and South Africa as well, which culminated in a visit from 48 pupils and 13 teachers from Africa, during which the Caedmon pupils hosted trips to Alton Towers and York. The school won a British Council award in 2006 for embedding an international element into the curriculum and best primary school in this year's TES Schools Awards.

While Mr Feasey acknowledges that measuring the impact on the wider community is difficult, parents have become increasingly supportive. Last June, an African theatre company, Mighty Zulu Nation, did a series of workshops at the school, "but the best event was when we had all the parents come in for an evening", says Mr Feasey.

"The mother of one of the very few black children was singing songs in her Khoisan dialect (one of the African clicking languages). The interaction in the singing and dancing was wonderful. I don't think we could have done that five years ago."

Now that the groundwork has been laid, the school has been able to deal with contemporary issues of community cohesion with Muslim communities and has forged links with the Claremont Community Mosque and a Muslim school, both in Bradford. Staff are also keen to pursue partnerships with schools in Iran and Iraq. Mr Feasey is planning an assembly about the closure of "the jungle" and the fate of displaced people there and intends to draw links with the pupils' knowledge of evacuations during the Second World War.

"We have covered the kindertransport and studied The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which they relate to because they're the same age as the children," he says. "For the assembly, I'm going to work with images, perhaps from Calais and 'the jungle', and then show images of Auschwitz. I'll try to draw the main points out from the kids themselves. We're in a position now to talk about these things."

It may seem ambitious to start teaching about a complicated area of EU policy, but themes of culture, prejudice and conflict can be tackled, even at primary level, and are already touched on in the history of the Holocaust.

"The horrors of the Holocaust must be held up as the ultimate form of bullying and ignorance. It happened, it still happens and will happen again," says Mr Feasey. "What we can do is encourage our children and young people to appreciate, understand and celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity."


Albert Einstein

One of the greatest scientists ever was a German-Jewish refugee.

Jackie Chan

Fled to the US from Hong Kong after being threatened with death by the Triads.

Alek Wek

Supermodel who fled Sudan with her family.

Marlene Dietrich

Actress and refugee from Nazi Germany.

Herta Muller

Romanian-born author living in Germany who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.


I am Here: Teaching about Refugees, Identity, Inclusion and the Media

Published by Save the Children.

A citizenship resource pack for key stage 3, including activity and information sheets suitable for photocopying and a video of young refugees talking about their lives. #163;14.25.

A Welcome Experience by Carolyn Herbert

Teaching programme about the refugee experience written by a London refugee support worker. Comprehensive programme for KS12 PSHE and citizenship with class worksheets included. #163;12.99.

Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah

Published by Bloomsbury

The story of Alem, a 14-year-old refugee who has come to live in England. His mother is Eritrean and his father is Ethiopian - with both countries at war, he is welcome in neither place. A thought-provoking book, useful for discussion in Year 6, and for teacher background information. #163;5.23.

We Are Here ... Because You Were There

A Virtual Migrants production in collaboration with Banner Theatre for GCSE and above. An educational CD-Rom that focuses on imigration and asylum in Britain, with first-person accounts from refugees. #163;9.99. www.virtualmigrants.comwe_rhereindex.htm.

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