Positive feel to the personal touch

8th November 1996 at 00:00
Jonathan Croall on projects that draw on ethnic pupils' own experiences to challenge stereotypes and build an accurate picture. Up on display in the classroom at St John Wall School in Birmingham, among a plethora of charity posters from CAFOD and Christian Aid, is a card bearing the succinct moto: "Geography puts the knowing into seeing."

What the class of Year 9 pupils studying Global Economics are seeing today is a group of photographs of life in Taiwan. What their teacher Dave Stanton hopes they'll soon be knowing a little more about is the links that connect their own lives with what goes on in this far-away country.

"Development education of this kind teaches children to see the similarities in what people are trying to do wherever they live," he says. "We're trying to help them understand that people have common concerns, whether it's getting decent health care or education or housing."

The children in his class are from a mixture of backgrounds: Sikh, Afro-Caribbean, Vietnamese, and British. As in many multi-ethnic schools in Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds and elsewhere, some of these second and third-generation children have been back to their families' country of origin, and are able to talk about their experiences in the classroom.

"We'll bow to their knowledge if it's not too localised," says Section 11 teacher Helena France. "If my knowledge is clearly less than theirs, I say so. I simply make it clear that I've only read books and seen films about the country, whereas they've actually been back there on a visit."

Pupils newly arrived in Britain can also contribute, sometimes unexpectedly. Last year, when a group at St John Wall were studying volcanoes, a girl who had recently arrived from the Philippines, and whose family had had direct experience of volcanic activity, gave a talk on the subject. "We thought until then that she was unable to speak English, but in fact she was just suffering from culture shock," remembers Helena France. "Doing this work helped her to overcome it. Bringing out knowledge that only they have can be a very positive experience for children."

Such use of children's personal or family experience has been a feature of the work done in some of the schools that have been using the Mangla pack, recently published by the South Yorkshire Development Education Centre in Sheffield.

Containing colour photographs, maps and background data, the pack encourages pupils through a range of hands-on activities to look at change and development in the Mirpur region of Pakistan, an area in which around 90 per cent of the Pakistani community here in Britain have their roots. The focus is on similarities between countries as well as differences between them. The pack has gone down well at Carlton Bolling College in Bradford, where 80 per cent of the pupils are of Pakistani origin. "The materials are very useful," says Lynette Daniels, head of humanities. "The kids love it because many of them have relatives there, and they recognise places they've been to. It's a great confidence-booster."

Some of the pupils have gone to parents and relatives for information, in a way that they wouldn't necessarily do for other subjects. Meanwhile, at Carlton Bolling and other schools, teachers have tried to draw in the children's families or community leaders as alternative sources of information.

One school that's tried to do this is Brudenelle Primary in Leeds, which is a pilot school for The World in West Yorkshire project, developed by the Leeds Development Education Centre. Parents were invited to bring in traditional craft objects, or to do some cooking in school and answer questions about their homeland. "Many of them are not fluent in English and tend to find school rather daunting," says teacher Margaret Bairstow, "but some did come in and the children were pleased, it made them feel more involved."

A central aim of the Mangla pack is to promote more positive images of the children's country of origin than the ones they usually come across in mainstream British culture including images that still feature in some Third World charity posters or geography textbooks.

"They do get quite embarrassed by suggestions that their culture is all about working with oxen or living in mud huts," says Delma Stimpson, who as a teacher at Wakefield City High School was involved in trials of the pack. "The pictures - for example those showing older teenage girls using sophisticated information technology - usefully help you to counter that."

Most of the Pakistani students at Carlton Bolling are from families who originally came from Mirpur. "I was surprised how many of them had a negative image of Pakistan," says teacher Heather Grinter. "It's something that has to be continually addressed through discussion."

Scott Sinclair, director of the Birmingham Development Education Centre, suggests stereotyping can be a major problem. "It's important that teachers combat images, but it's also about recognising that attitudes influence understanding, and helping children to understand that they too have attitudes which can lead to stereotyping," he says.

In Birmingham, development education also embraces local issues. The centre has just published Learning to Participate, a challenging booklet which aims to increase older pupils' awareness of human rights, citizenship and development issues in their local community.

Put together by a group of teachers involved in the Handsworth Ten Years On project, it invites pupils to consider issues relating to poverty, housing and policing thrown up by the uprising in Handsworth in 1985, and to investigate the thinking behind the images used in media coverage of the events.

Again stereotypes are being challenged - but this time of the children's own backyard. "They're quite prepared to challenge media versions of what happened," says Helena France, one of the teachers involved. "They're mature enough to decide whether they tally with their own experience of living here."

Mangla: A Study of Change and Development in Mirpur, available from South Yorkshire DEC , Woodthorpe School, Sheffield S13 8DD. Pounds 15 plus Pounds 2.50 pp. Learning to Participate: Human Rights, Citizenship and Development in the Local Community, from Birmingham DEC , Gillett Centre, 998 Bristol Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham B29 6LE. Pounds 5.95 plus Pounds 1.20 pp

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