Chris Patten calls for education to stem tide of prejudice and ignorance published in tabloid press. Michael Shaw reports
Schools are the first line in defence against xenophobic scare stories about Europe, according to Chris Patten, European commissioner for external relations.
Pupils urgently need better lessons about Europe to stop them believing stories in the newspapers, Mr Patten writes in today's TES. He said there is a "worrying shortfall" in British education about the EU, which tomorrow welcomes 10 new member states.
The former governor of Hong Kong said the lack of education made it easier for tabloid newspapers to treat the historic event as a scare story about immigration.
"Ignorance creates a vacuum, which an irresponsible media is all too ready to fill with half-truths and outright invention," he said. "Schools, of course, are our first line of defence against such pernicious nonsense."
Newspapers have claimed that the EU wants to ban saucy ads for bras and set strict guidelines on the bendiness of bananas. In recent weeks several tabloids have warned that the enlargement of the EU will cause Britain to be swamped by an "invasion" of East European immigrants, some of whom may carry a drug-resistant form of tuberculosis.
Mr Patten admitted that the subject of the European Union could be boring for children: "Europe presents a particular challenge to teachers trying to find ways to excite their students and motivate them to learn," he said.
"The processes can be arcane and the source material dull, but not always, and the outcomes matter."
The commissioner's concerns are backed by research which suggests widespread problems with the way European countries are studied in schools.
John Hopkins, an adviser to Birmingham education authority, examined geography text books for 11 to 14-year-olds and found that the only European countries to receive detailed attention were France, Italy and Spain. He said that UK pupils had less chance to learn about countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland than children in other parts of the EU.
Attiya Khan, a 15-year-old pupil at Greenford high in Ealing, said: "I know the EU is a group of countries, but that is it. It's just seems like something boring you hear about on the news."
David Lambert, chief executive of the Geography Association, said the narrowness of the geography curriculum was to blame for pupils' lack of knowledge.
The EU has been trying to encourage greater partnership between schools in different nations through its Socrates education schemes. But a report by the Scottish Council for Research in Education found that interest from UK schools has declined since 2000.
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