Breaking news: students should be kept in the loop

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
As children’s newspaper First News has amply demonstrated, young people are curious about current affairs – and teachers are well placed to feed this interest

It is unbelievable that world and current affairs are not a core part of the curriculum.

Schools are there to educate. And it seems to me that learning about the world in which they are growing up is a fundamental right of any young person. Indeed, article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the aims of education are to aid “the development of the child’s personality” and that education must help children to “respect…human rights and fundamental freedoms”. How can they do that if they don’t know what’s happening to other humans? The refugee crisis, for example.

Children are just smaller, younger versions of us. They want to know what is going on in the world as much as we do. They want to have an understanding of the issues, both in the UK and internationally, that affect all our lives. And they want to understand their place in the world. I always say that children are 27 per cent of the global population but they are 100 per cent of the future. For the world to become a better place, the next generation needs to be better informed than the last.

When we launched First News in 2006, the notion of a newspaper for children was greeted with much ridicule. Oddly, many adult papers, themselves in decline, rose up in mockery. “Young people get all their information from the internet!” they said. “And, anyway, they’re not interested in the news.” This astounded me.

Inform and educate

The negative attitude stretched as far as a leader article in The Independent that cast doubt on whether we would succeed. It hardly needs pointing out that this publication is no longer in print. We are.

Part of the reason is that teachers know best. As First News prepares to celebrate 10 years since its launch, I am proud to say that, despite the doubters at the beginning, around half of all UK primary and secondary schools subscribe: evidence that teachers are educating their pupils about the news. They are so right to do so. How can we hope to turn out rounded, engaged and active global citizens if children learn only academic facts?

Children are like sponges, soaking up information. They are interested. Mostly, they are kind. They want to help and make a difference. An example of this is that, early on in the life of First News, when our readership was much lower than it is now, we ran a feature about child soldiers caught up in war in Uganda. Our readers were horrified to learn that children in conflicts across the world were fighting in adult wars.

Readers asked what they could do to help. So, on their behalf, we launched a campaign called Conflict Children to shine a light on the global problem of child soldiers. We produced a letter for pupils to sign, calling for an end to the practice of children being used to fight in wars. We thought that maybe a few hundred – or, if we were lucky, perhaps a few thousand – might sign. In the end, 235,000 British children added their name to the letter. The number was so large because scores of teachers across the UK chose to get their pupils involved and to use First News to teach them about child soldiers.

David Miliband was foreign secretary at the time and was so stunned that he brought forward the government’s review of its child soldier policy. He then took our letter to the UN, and a special session was called on behalf of British children. How amazing. It showed our readers that every single one of them had a voice and that every single one of them could identify a problem and be part of the solution.

It’s not just First News that recognises the need for young people to be informed. Last year I was fortunate enough to be with US First Lady Michelle Obama when she visited a school. Her advice to students was: “Don’t just be book-smart, be smart about the world. You need to be informed and engaged all the time. That’s what makes change. Read your newspapers.”

The talk of the playground

When the first Islamic State beheading happened, I decided to treat it very sensitively, referring to it only as a “killing” in our First News report. But, that week, I was in schools and Year 5s talked in detail about the brutal beheading, footage of which was available on the internet. Some of them had even seen it – and went on to tell me about other graphic and, frankly, disturbing videos they had watched online.

It was a reminder to me that, in an age of 24-hour news – when children and teenagers are online, have mobile phones and are dabbling on a number of social networking sites, – you cannot shield them from what is going on in the world. The chances are that the day’s news will be the talk of the playground or the school canteen: people buried alive in an earthquake, a plane crash, a terrorist attack.

If children are hearing about a news story only second-, third- or even fourth-hand, the likelihood is that, by the time it reaches them, the facts will have been distorted, exaggerated or embellished. My advice to teachers is not to shy away from the facts, however scary or abhorrent they may seem. Teachers play a critical role in presenting difficult news, framed with the context and reassurance that children need to make sense of it.

Nicky Cox is editor of First News, the only national newspaper for children

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