Joseph CHAMBERLAIN Sixth Form College in Birmingham will today welcome 400 students from across the country for the annual Model United Nations (MUN) conference.
Hosted by the college for the past seven years, the MUN conference aims to challenge 16- to 19-year-olds from sixth-form colleges across the country, and their peers from schools across Birmingham, to research, question and develop original solutions to real problems facing world leaders.
Often young people are tarred with the brush of apathy, or seen as a group disengaged with their role in the democratic process. But in previous years, the conference has challenged these ideas, often with spectacular results.
MUN presents young people with a variety of international problems for research and discussion. Topics debated in previous years range from violence in Latin America and euthanasia to piracy and the illegal wildlife trade (see box, opposite). Students have even had to respond to emergency scenarios.
It is the breadth and depth of the challenge that engages students.
Providing them with just enough scaffolding to understand the structure of key global debates, allowing them to develop the skills to research independently and, most importantly, putting faith in students’ own ideas often leads to some quite astounding results.
Resolutions are usually original and well researched. But they are also, importantly, the outcome of a carefully debated and negotiated process involving their peers. Solutions are never provided by teachers but are, instead, a product of students’ own carefully thought-through work.
So how can students be successful MUNers? The event has been designed to simulate United Nations meetings, and students also have to simulate the preparation work that goes into such an event. Before the weekend begins, students will have researched their allocated country’s position on key issues, deciphered the relationships they have with other countries coming to the conference and written their resolution – the key document they hope their peers will approve at the conference.
Once the conference gets under way, the hard work really starts. Students will meet other young people from around the country for the first time. Often, they are from very different backgrounds, with different experiences and representing the views of countries that are quite different from their own. MUN therefore helps to develop the social soft skills that are so valuable to universities, employers and the young people that we all work with.
Students will also need to cooperate with delegate colleagues as part of debate. While it might be fun for some students to deliberately find problems and to have a diplomatic argument, successful delegates will seek consensus through negotiation and cooperation. These are the delegates that will find their resolutions making it through to the final debates.
On the Sunday, students who have successfully negotiated committee support for their resolution will seek final approval from all students in the general assembly debate. This will demand public-speaking skills and the ability to think quickly.
Delegates from other countries will have the opportunity to question the resolutions – and those who have written them. Only when they have come through this last stage of the MUN conference will resolutions become approved Model United Nations resolutions, stamped with the support of the delegates.
MUN promotes fundamental British values, too. What better way of promoting democracy than with a political process that relies on consensus-building, voting and group approval? Delegates can be successful only if they are able to empathise and tolerate the opinions of other students, who represent different countries. If they are unable to recognise, and work with, such opinions, they run the risk of losing the vote. Students also gain the ability to see how fundamentally British values have a universal characteristic and origin.
I am told that students look forward to MUN and I can vouch for the buzz that it creates in college canteens for weeks afterwards. It is incredible to hear students discussing global events with enthusiasm and expertise. It is also satisfying to hear a student who may have lacked the confidence to challenge a political notion do so with the newly found social skills and political knowledge that the conference has helped to nurture and develop.
Tom Williams is Model UN coordinator and learning leader at Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College. If you would like to take part in next year’s Model United Nations conference, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Subjects tackled at the Model United Nations conference in recent years:
The refugee crisis
The death penalty
The safety of reporters in war zones