SCHOOLS MUST inspire children to become global citizens, understanding national politics and international issues, school standards minister Estelle Morris told a conference this week.
Taking on critics who claim there is no room in the national curriculum to teach citizenship, she said that the Government had no alternative to making the lessons compulsory in secondary schools from 2002, because young people were failing to engage with the political process.
Pupils also had a poor understanding of international organisations, Ms Morris told the London conference, organised by the Central Bureau - the arm of the British Council which supports the development of an international dimension in education, including organising teacher and pupil exchanges.
Ms Morris said that with the turn-out as low as 20 per cent in the last European elections, schools could be blamed for failing to fire pupils' civic enthusiasm. Teaching pupils "global citizenship" was equally important, she said, because if young people were failing to engage with national politics, it was an even greater challenge to get them to understand the workings of the United Nations or the European Parliament.
It was even more crucial to the coming generation, who will travel more and feel more "European" than their predecessors, and increasingly would be competing for jobs internationally.
On citizenship lessons, Ms Morris said: "There are those who say that the curriculum is already overwhelmed. I have to say I do not think there is an alternative (to the lessons). The alternative is to bring up a generation of children who do not have the skills and knowledge they will need to become global citizens."
The minister also said that the Government would consider publicising schools which teach citizenship well, and reiterated a pledge to allow more teachers to gain experience abroad.
For Michael Barber, head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, the need to prepare pupils to become true world citizens was more fundamental.
He said: "There are a set of challenges facing humanity the like of which we have never seen before."
The next generation had to be well-educated, he said, because they would face daunting decisions such as how to save the planet in the face of overpopulation and pollution, and moral dilemmas resulting from the advance of genetics.
Caroline St John-Brooks, the editor of The TES, who chaired the conference, praised the Central Bureau for launching a new document setting out how schools could develop an international dimension in teaching.
"Along with the fact we have Estelle Morris and Michael Barber on the platform today, This demonstrates how seriously global citizenship is being taken now," she said.
"A Framework for the International Dimension" is available free from the Central Bureau, 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN. Tel 020 7389 4004.
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