Development education in Britain takes a great leap forward today, with the official opening of the Reading International Solidarity Centre. The spacious shop and office complex in a historic street in Reading is as brightly-lit and attractive as any high street store. But there the similarity ends, for rather than the usual range of high street consumables, the centre houses a huge choice of development education materials.
RISC was formerly housed in much smaller premises in London Street. But in 1994 the centre found itself bursting at the seams. So with a heroic mix of determination and voluntary support, staff managed to buy and convert three adjoining historic buildings further down the street.
The purchase was made possible by a loan from Triados, the ethical bank. But the hard work of restoration was carried out by prisoners from Reading Gaol, working alongside young people from Turkey, Spain and Lithuania. They turned a rat-infested pile of pigeon-droppings into a fine example of sensitive renovation. This historic site, where Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania William Penn worshiped 300 years ago, and the hugely successful Lovejoy's lending library operated in Victorian times, now houses not only the spacious shop, but a resource centre and the Pangaea (one earth) cafe. And upstairs organisations including One World Week and Oxfam rent offices, making it possible for RISC to pay the mortgage.
Martin Mikhail is one of a collective of five people who have been involved in the immense task of creating the new centre. "This a model which we hope will be replicated in other towns and cities," he says. "If you go to any town in Holland people can tell you where to find the nearest World Shop. But in Britain the word development tends to mean second-hand clothes and Christmas cards. We want to reach the widest possible audience."
Although the centre officially opens its doors today, the shop has already been trading for some months. Barbara Lowe, RISC's education resource-worker says: "People feel comfortable walking into a shop. We're open six days a week, and during the summer we had teachers coming from London and further afield to browse around.
"In the shop we have a database listing more than 7,000 development education publications. "Teachers are welcome to come and search through the database, but if they want some help they can make an appointment. If they want, we can talk through the development education process. If people are a long distance away we might put them in touch with a local resource centre or advise them on what to order by mail."
Ms Lowe explains that the centre also lends artefacts to schools. "Young children, particularly, want to touch things," she says. For example, from January a barbecue, a broom and some craft items from St Lucia will be available.
This is just one of several hiring services provided by the centre. There's an anti-racist loans service offering books and teaching packs. Dave Richards, another member of the collective, explains: "It's about breaking down barriers in schools. Many of the reasons for racism here are similar to what lies behind exploitation in countries in the South. We make that link. For example, we have an exhibition that compares open-cast mining in south Wales and the Philippines."
Mr Richards also produces packs for use outside as well as inside schools. World Music is a recent successful example of a neat way into development issues. His most successful pack is Focus for Change, which takes on "class, gender and race inequality and the media - in an international context". This is popular with youth and campaigning groups and Mr Richards is always trying to expand that side of the market. He also supplies laminated exhibitions - there is almost no end to the cornucopia of resources available.
On the state of development education, the staff are reasonably optimistic. Ms Lowe says the subject provides an ideal way to approach the much-talked about area of values in education. She sees a "terrific range and quality" in the materials available, although she wishes secondary schools made as much use of them as the primaries do. Mr Richards says RISC confronts adults and children with real choices and reveals to them "the hidden problems behind their patterns of consumption".
RISC is at 35-39 London Street, Reading RG1 3PS. Tel: 0118 958 6692. Fax: 0118 959 4357. E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org Website http:www.gn.apc.orgrisc