Are some issues too hot to handle? One World Week certainly felt the heat over its East Timor materials. Brendan O'Malley reports. The Government's is pushing for a greater concentration on moral awareness and critical thinking in schools to improve the quality of education. But how will ministers react if this approach is extended to the study of issues such as aid and trade, where their own policies and the activities of British firms might come under scrutiny?
A foretaste came in a row this autumn over materials produced for One World Week, an ecumenical development education initiative run for the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. The materials focused on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor and the case of the four women who protested about British Hawk jets being sold to the Jakarta government - by taking a hammer to one of them at a British Aerospace base and disabling its ground-attack capability.
The "Ploughshares 4" were charged with causing criminal damage, held on remand and sent to trial. But they were acquitted in court after arguing that they were upholding international law and that British Aerospace and the Government were guilty of aiding and abetting genocide, contrary to the Genocide Act 1969, and aiding and abetting murder, contrary to section 4 of the Offences Against the Persons Act, 1861.
Legitimate protest or wanton vandalism? In a chapter entitled "Stepping over the edge?" the One World Week pack offered questions and activity ideas for raising the issues. These included: "Have you ever had to stand up against authority of any kind (school, work, parental?) for something you believed in? . . . Under what circumstances (if any) would you consider breaking the law of the land?" Examples were given of how acts of civil disobedience had been used to achieve change non-violently - such as Gandhian movements in India and South Africa.
One activity was: "Compile a pretend documentary including interviews with the ploughshares women, officials at the BAe base, East Timorese students, the Trade Secretary. . ." Another was: "List all the means used by the Ploughshares group to try to stop the Hawks (there are at least 10!). Find out all you can about each method."
The materials provoked a wave of critical press reports, which led mainly on comments from Diana Murrie, the Church of England's children's work officer, who said the material was biased and should come with a health warning. She asked: "How can you have an educational workshop on how to smash up a tank? Vandalism is often done by young people, and you can't say to them that there are circumstances to take a hammer to things."
The chapter's author, Tany Alexander, said: "The role play wasn't about smashing things up. It was about arguments for and against civil disobedience. The feeling seems to be that we should not be allowed to to discuss the pros and cons. Why not, it's a democracy?
"Some schools use the pack. But it is teachers who send away for it and we trust their judgment."
Pat Gaffney, general secretary of Pax Christi, part of the Catholic peace movement, accepts that even teachers who are personally very interested may feel reluctant to push such issues either because of pressure on the timetable or because they fear being seen to be political.
"It has become much more difficult with the national curriculum," she said. "But we do get a lot of demand through religious studies, looking at social issues and social justice; through PSE and history. Some sixth forms do attempt to work at some of these political and social issues in PSE programmes. "
One school which wholeheartedly pursued the Ploughshares jet protest issue is St Wilfrid's High, a Catholic school in Litherland, Liverpool. Religious studies teacher Julie Currall was looking at the role of prophets in challenging injustice - from Jesus to Martin Luther king - and the suffering they had to face as a result, when the Ploughshares action blew up and the trial was due to take place in their city. Some pupils voluntarily joined vigils outside the court.
After the trial, two of the acquitted women, Joanna Wilson and Andrea Needham, came to the school to speak about their experience, the situation in East Timor, the role of the arms trade and non-violent direct action. Year 9 pupils carried out a role-play re-enactment of the trial to rehearse the arguments on all sides. An eight-week sixth-form project was also set up to look at the problem in greater depth, partly by working with John Pilger's Channel 4 video, Death of a Nation, which examines British complicity.
The Ploughshares campaign takes its name from a quotation in the Book of Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." And Julie Currall felt strongly that exploring this subject is a justifiable exploration of issues covered in the Scriptures. "They disarmed a jet that was going to deliver death to the people of East Timor and made it harmless. We ask, 'Would Jesus do a Ploughshares?'" She says her headteacher, Brian Eccles, is fully supportive and an OFSTED inspection report praised the challenging nature of the work.
Pat Gaffney is not surprised. She says a key part of development education is to realise that the roots of the problems of poverty, oppression, injustice and so on are sometimes created by policies generated here. "It's about opening minds to the range of choices available."
Critics might like to note that Sir Ron Dearing, in his Review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds, said spiritual and moral development was integral to personal growth and should have a double focus. "Intellectually, young people increasingly encounter issues and experiences which raise questions of a spiritual or moral nature. These questions will frequently need resolving, often leading to action at home or in the workplace . . ."