More than just a band aid

7th September 2001 at 01:00
PJ White on how the Red Cross is raising awareness of its education programme

Want to know what teachers think of you? Set out your stall at the Education Show and listen to passing comments. Those at the British Red Cross stand earlier this year had a sense of being typecast. "Done you, thanks," teachers called as they breezed past. "I've got my certificate."

Their meaning was clear. Red Cross is first aid. First aid is Red Cross. So they'd have been surprised to learn that the organisation's education programme was recently inspected by Ofsted. Or that it has a programme of study support. Or that it runs peer education projects, a global youth awareness programme, an email befriending group for young people with disabilities, and a classroom-based pilot project exploring humanitarian values.

British Red Cross is, in many ways, a cautious organisation. It knows that one of its strengths is its reputation as a respected relief and crisis response agency. Its fundamental principles, including impartiality and independence, make it reluctant to speak out too often. But if you don't speak out, you don't get heard. Even so, the extent of the invisibility of its education programme is extraordinary.

Steve Rouch, head of Year 9 at Broadgreen high school in Liverpool, has been operating a study support programme since last September. Red Cross youth workers go into school and work with the Year 9 council, a self-selected group who meet weekly after school. Yes, they've done some first aid training, as expected. But they have also drawn on Red Cross's international work and taken part in a global youth awareness programme. They are currently working on an art project.

"My pupils don't think of it as a Red Cross thing, in that sense," says Mr Rouch. "It is a constant battle for the Red Cross to try to change the perception of what they do."

Meanwhile, Matt Overd, British Red Cross first aid project officer for schools, is in the business of changing what first aid itself means. He is encouraging young people to determine their emergency first aid concerns - such as drug overdoses, fighting, stabbings, or injuries caused by vandalism, bullying or suicide. Or alcohol or other substance misuse. Or wider health issues, such as risky sexual practices and mental health.

There is no doubt that the British Red Cross needs to do something to make itself relevant to young people. Youth membership in the 1980s was around 32,000. By 1990, it had plummeted to 18,000. Latest estimates suggest 6,000.

The organisation has been beefing up its educational offerings with pilot projects and small-scale schemes around the country, including a befriending programme which targets young people at risk of social exclusion. Much of this programme, funded to the tune of pound;73,000 a year over the past three years by the Government - hence the Ofsted inspection - is aimed at increasing self-confidence.

Maureen O'Callaghan, youth and schools manager, says the organisation also has an educational role in raising young people's awareness and understanding of humanitarian values. "That underpins citizenship. We introduce the values, help young people explore the values - and then move on to what they do with it. Within the citizenship curriculum there is a requirement for young people to take action. What you have within Red Cross is the capacity to offer that whole package."

Millie Stevenson, who teaches politics at Bangor high school, County Down, allocates 90 minutes a week to exploring humanitarian law, as part of a programme piloted in several countries. The session initially attracted just 12 sixth-form pupils. Within weeks, numbers doubled. "It came to the point where some were wanting to drop modules to take the course."

Human rights, sexism, strip-searches, parallels with other countries, treatment of prisoners, the Geneva Convention. The more the pupils discussed in class, they less certain they became.

"The pupils didn't just want to express their own opinions. They really did want to hear other people's," says Ms Stevenson.

But the budding education programme is likely to be hit by a downturn in the charity's financial fortunes. Money is tight. So, as well as promoting the work, Maureen O'Callaghan also has to be wary of promising too much. "I don't want to raise false hopes," she says. "Our future is working in partnerships. Not duplicating, but adding value to the work of schools and others."

Maureen O'Callaghan, British Red Cross, 9 Grosvenor Crescent, London SW1X 7EJ. Tel: 020 7235 5454. For information on the Exploring Humanitarian Law project contact Robin De Baere, British Red Cross, 87 University Street, Belfast BT7 1HP. Tel: 028 9024 6400.

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