Rehabilitating the European cousins

6th January 2006 at 00:00
My seven-year-old son wanted to discuss the existence of hell the other morning. To reassure him, I said that if it did exist only really terrible people would go there when they died. "You mean, like Germans?" he asked innocently.

Sure enough, this had come from the playground, where the twin battlegrounds of World War II and subsequent football world cups had established in every child's mind that Germans were the universal baddies and the rest of the Europeans not much better.

This would be simply amusing if it did not reflect a more worrying truth - that, 30 years after joining the European Union, Britain is still turning out children whose view of their country's place in the world is fixed at a point almost 70 years back in its history.

True, they learn about ethnic groups and their origins, about Africa and global poverty. But the one international issue that has a daily, if unspectacular, impact on their lives is Britain's membership of the European Union. This is the citizenship topic that dare not speak its name.

As a result we have children who are ignorant and apathetic about a body which not only influences their lives, but in which they will one day have a political say, through its parliament. At this point Eurosceptics will be baying for blood, claiming that there is no place for EU propaganda in the classroom. But this is exactly the problem. If we want our children to vote in Britain we must get them interested in both issues and process.

Strip out the ideological debate for a moment and there are very coherent reasons for teaching about the workings of the EU and its parliament in the citizenship curriculum, not least because for as long as we are part of the EU we have the right, the duty, to elect representatives to its parliament.

The EU is on the citizenship curriculum for key stage 3, just (it shares a brief line with the Commonwealth and the United Nations at the end of a paragraph talking about the "global community"). But look for teaching resources and you fall into a black hole. Ask the Department for Education and Skills what resources there are and the level of its interest becomes clear. You are directed to the "global gateway" website, which covers just about the whole world (as you could gather from its name), with a nod in the direction of the EU. Hardly a key resource, then.

In fact, the Government puts no funding directly into classroom teaching of the EU. The truth is the Government does not think the EU important enough to risk an information drive that could provoke howls of Eurosceptic rage.

Other bodies that could do this job - the executive European Commission and the European Parliament - are viewed in the UK with suspicion. The Commission says somewhat defensively that it could not have any direct input into English classrooms, as this would smack of propaganda.

The parliament, being a democratically-elected body, ought to be ideally placed to raise awareness. Indeed it is planning to produce teaching resources later this year (2006) for the citizenship curriculum. The aim will be to encourage engagement with politics in Europe. The test, of course, will be uptake. To try and maximise this the parliament plans to organise teacher conferences throughout the UK, to spread awareness of the resource and to give teachers the confidence to use it. The citizenship case for the EU is not helped by the fact that the subject is complex.

Here, if anywhere, teachers could do with rich teaching resources to put together lively and informative lessons. But will they?

Many LEAs live in fear of irate parents accusing them of "pro-European propaganda" in school. As with sex education, there is a perfectly valid question of whether this subject ought to be taught in school at all. Like sex education, the answer is probably that it should not be necessary to do so, but given that many parents won't - or can't - do it themselves, and the child will be exposed only to scare-mongering or incorrect facts outside of school, the citizenship curriculum carries a heavy responsibility to teach children the true facts about the EU and our European partners.

Fiona Leney is a journalist

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