Healthy openness to difficult issues

7th November 1997 at 00:00

The Commonwealth Institute Pounds 25

Here are two questions for your colleagues. What is special about the second Monday in March? (Answer: It's Commonwealth Day). And why was that date chosen? (Answer: Every student in the Commonwealth should be at school on that day.) If few can answer both questions correctly, then it may simply reflect the peripheral status of the Commonwealth in the minds of teachers; only a handful of history departments teach the Commonwealth as an in-depth study in the unit on the 20th century.

The Commonwealth Institute has recognised these problems, and its answer is a flexible resource pack covering the history of the Commonwealth and its current scope and organisation, together with seven case studies which are intended to be used in different subject contexts. Although the curriculum case cannot be proven, the "thousands of enquiries" received by the institute from teachers and students suggest that a market does exist for information and ideas for projects. And, although an indirect factor, two-thirds of British pupils have relatives in at least one other Commonwealth country.

Brief histories are given using different accounts, showing not only the divergence of views but the importance of recognising interpretation. These include an overview of Commonwealth history and the steps towards independence in India, Africa and elsewhere. According to one history, the British reacted to events, had no overall strategy, ignored religious differences and left people in disputed territories, such as Kashmir, to their fate.

Beyond the interesting differences in vocabulary - Did the West Indies Federation "collapse" or was it "dissolved"? - lie wholly divergent viewpoints and important questions such as whether the economic crises of so many independent states were the result of years of exploitation or a combination of natural disasters and world recession. The same healthy openness to these issues permeates the treatment of such subjects as Rhodesia and South Africa.

The case studies include an activity on conflict resolution which would be highly relevant to personal and social education and quality material with role-plays on geographical topics such as small states and sustainable development. Less successful are the overly theoretical approaches to human rights, nongovernmental organisations and sport.

Unfortunately, the value of this pack to schools is not in proportion to its cost; this is an expensive resource which has to be purchased in its entirety. A set of case studies for particular subject areas with a clearer age focus would have been more useful.

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