How Mandela sparked Clarke's global passion

12th November 2004 at 00:00
When Charles Clarke was a student leader he never thought he would see the day Nelson Mandela would be set free.

As president of the National Union of Students, he remembers university after university renaming their bars after the African National Congress leader.

"It was a symbol and no one ever believed he would come out of prison alive. But what has been achieved since then is an absolutely enormous process of change."

It is the insights from his own years of campaigning and the tragic story of his wife's Estonian family that have driven the Education Secretary's passion for promoting an international dimension in school life.

His dream is for schools across the world to share cultural events, curriculum projects and professional expertise. But he also hopes such links will help schools give children a sense of how they can influence change. "I feel a passion for it," he said. "I've always been involved in international activities and I've always believed it was very important."

Mr Clarke, now 54, spent a year in Cuba in 1978 organising the World Youth Festival and years lobbying on international issues, including his former role as chairman of the parliamentary group on Estonia.

The Estonian link, resulting from his marriage to Carol, has deeply affected his thinking about how children should be educated about the world today.

His wife's family paid a terrible price for the war against Nazi Germany.

Half of her mother's family were pushed in front of the Russian invasion in 1944 and the rest were left behind Soviet lines. Her grandfather was killed by the KGB.

"These people's lives were changed in utterly dramatic ways and I didn't really understand much about it," said Mr Clarke. "That brought home to me the importance of understanding international history as it relates to the issues of the day and I want to ensure our young people grasp the meaning of that better than I did."

He is urging schools to capitalise on an extraordinary year ahead for Britain internationally: the report of the Africa commission next spring and UK presidencies of the G8 group of industrialised countries and the European Union.

"I dislike the narrow nationalism we sometimes see in British politics and as secretary of state I wanted to do what I could to encourage a more internationalist approach," he said.


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