World vision changes focus

24th October 1997 at 01:00
As the leaders of 50 Commonwealth countries convene in Edinburgh, Seonag MacKinnon asks how much the "family" of nations means to today's schoolchildren

Today the leaders of up to 50 Commonwealth countries will assemble in Edinburgh. In the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, press coverage seemed to confine itself to debating how much money the city stood to make from the gathering and the traffic problems it might cause. Unlike the lead up to an EU summit, it did not inspire feverish speculation about currency, power groupings and political intrigue.

Press releases and information packs spilled out, but there seems to have been a singular lack of interest apart from some tut-tutting over the council's expenditure of Pounds 3,000 on a carpet especially for the occasion. The wide range of events such as a Commonwealth Family Festival in Princes Street Gardens, an exhibition on Education and Technology around the Commonwealth, a civic service at St Giles, a Youth Forum, a Primary Schools' Rugby Festival and a concert - Fanfare for the Commonwealth - given by young musicians from Edinburgh schools, all failed to invoke much interest in advance.

Stirred up by Edinburgh City Council's enthusiasm, and with the help of resource packs sent out by the Royal Commonwealth Society, schools around the capital set about studying the Commonwealth in anticipation of the meeting.

Questionnaires were sent to pupils aged eight to 17, in order to draw up an Edinburgh Schools Communique to present to the Secretary General of the Commonwealth. There were 1,340 responses on issues such as human relations and the environment. The questionnaire followed classroom discussions. It asked to what extent the children agreed that people were greedy - did they leave chewing gum and litter where they shouldn't, and did they think that people worked hard to make the world a better place?

Responses ranged from "Stop thinking about countries and start thinking about separate families," and "I think to improve human relations we should give back some of the money we took from countries like India" to "Pounds 1,000 university tuition fees should be abandoned" and "Bring back the death penalty to rid us of extreme social misfits." Bruce Wallace, the city's curriculum development officer who organised the survey, concedes that the Commonwealth does not appear to loom large in children's perceptions.

George Watson's, an independent school with its own international co-ordinator, hosted a student version of the big meeting for schools from 13 different authorities in south-east Scotland last Friday. It wrote to 107 schools, out of which 31 - five independents and 26 state schools - sent two delegates each. They represented all the countries of the Commonwealth and discussed issues such as trade and aid. Asked by The TES Scotland how relevant they thought the Commonwealth was at a time when we are forging closer and closer links with Europe, four out of five George Watson's pupils were very positive.

David Sammels, 14, said: "You have to see the point of view of the other country, not just Scotland. The Commonwealth might mean more to a poor country than it does to us."

Chris Donnelly, also 14, said: "The Commonwealth is certainly an organisation of the future. It is not a waste of money, as these countries have lots of potential and we can learn a lot from each other."

Euan Broadwood, 16, was the dissenting voice: "This is just Britain trying to keep up weak ties with the Empire. The Commonwealth is outdated and in need of reform if it is to survive. This conference hasn't hit the headlines because interest in it has disappeared. We have to look at countries nearer to us, not those thousands of miles away."

David agreed that interest was on the wane: "We only seem to think of the Commonwealth as the Commonwealth Games." He called for better publicity to improve links.

Chris - who wrote to Government House in the Falkland Islands to find out how to become a Governor and received a reply, complete with photograph of ceremonial uniform - had this explanation: "The Commonwealth is going downhill because people aren't taught about British history and the countries we colonised. We're not taught to be British any more."

Hannah Finnie, 13, values the Commonwealth: "We want Third World countries to get help, so we need people to discuss it. It is worth having because we need to know what is happening in other countries and, if it is really bad, do something about it."

But Euan is pessimistic about the future: "It may scrape another 50 years but not much longer. Even now, if you ask someone in Swaziland what the Commonwealth means to them, they'll probably ask you what it is."

With regard to aid for struggling countries, Euan said: "The Bible says you should give to people below us, to lesser nations, but there is no point unless you get something back. You can't just give and give. You might not see results."

The children were united in praising the introduction this year of a simultaneous Youth Forum with 250 people aged 18 to 24 from 54 Commonwealth countries and UK dependencies to discuss issues such as health, poverty, drugs, conflict resolution, the environment, youth rights and empowerment. The forum findings are to be issued as a communique to be presented to the Prince of Wales and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Euan said: "Foreign leaders tend to look at present-day issues, not the future. They don't look at issues like pollution which will affect us more than it will affect them in their lifetime."

Rob Crawford, the school's co-ordinator of international relations, who organised the event and also leads a school team which will represent the UK at the European Youth Parliament in Granada, Spain, next year, said that students' attitudes had changed. "Head-to-head debates have gone out of fashion," he said. "It may be the influence of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. There is a much more consensual approach, putting heads together rather than knocking spots off each other. People don't want to be associated with old-style politics.

"I'm not sure the Commonwealth will be there in 50 years, but there is a lot of mileage in looking beyond Europe for a more balanced view of the world. There is enormous value in getting together to agree a communique. There is lasting value in trying to understand each other's problems."

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