Development education suffers from a marginal status and faces a constant struggle to be taken seriously, according to initial findings of the Development Education Commission.
The government thinktank, which numbers such luminaries as Glenys Kinnock MEP, Birmingham chief education officer Tim Brighouse and Irish presidential candidate Mary Banotti among its members, is more than half way through its two-year remit to assess the state of development education and map out strategies for its progress.
The commission has spent the past twelve months sounding out representatives in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Its final report will be published next summer.
The commission has already identified several areas of concern. These include funding problems, a need for more strategic planning, a move away from development education by some agencies that have traditionally been strong in the area, a need to forge links with other groups interested in social change and a lack of documented evidence of activity over the past two decades.
But current issues such as devolution and the situation in Northern Ireland could be a window of opportunity for development education and allied subjects such as human rights education.
Commission chair Kevin Boyle, an international human rights lawyer based at the University of Essex believes next year, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will be a great opportunity for giving development education a key role in curriculum planning.
"We want formal and informal support for the idea of development education, " he says. "Starting in schools, we aim to make people more socially literate. We hope our ideas will have implications for the curriculum."
He says the subject's struggle to be taken seriously is at odds with the progress of world affairs. "There is a globalisation of the economy and communications but at the same time people seem to have a dwindling interest in international affairs. The formal curriculum is narrowing and perhaps people are less concerned with the agenda of development."
But he sees hope in the Government's stated aim of increasing foreign aid, as well as in its upgrading of overseas development. "The new government has a far more prominent policy on the notion of human rights than its predecessor had. It has put development into the Cabinet with the appointment of Clare Short as International Development Secretary. That gives a fillip to our work," he says.
The challenge is to widen development education beyond its current constituency as a higher education degree course and to engage the interest of younger children, using their natural affinity with such themes as the environment and injustice. And the commission is keen to hear from organisations and individuals with views and suggestions on the role of development education, to be included in the consultation report due for publication next term.
"We don't want to be a talking shop," says Mr Boyle. "We want to consult widely and talk with people working on the ground."