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Understanding the lessons of war

I'm watching about 300 pupils from the local secondary school stream past my window; some have banners and are shouting: "Stop the war!" It's 11.25am on a sunny Thursday in mid-March. Earlier in the week, I gave a lecture to primary PGCE students about citizenship. Apathy among young people is partly why the Government introduced citizenship: only 39 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the last general election.

Some of the pupils walking towards the town centre probably couldn't find Iraq on a map. But they are learning about democracy and they will be prompted to find out more about Iraq by the example of fellow pupils and the unusual circumstances.

Many are deeply concerned, and highlight the hypocrisy of declaring war on Iraq while ignoring Israel's contravention of numerous UN resolutions; they wonder if Iraq's oil riches are just a coincidence; they question how far diplomacy has been given a chance, and what exactly will happen in Iraq when war is over ("look at Afghanistan, its even worse for the people there now"); they are determined their voices will be heard.

Last year, the Government set up task forces to look into why the public, particularly young people, no longer seem interested in politics. The events of recent weeks demonstrate that, in fact, people are very interested in politics.

The situation in Iraq has thrown up issues for all teachers. For older pupils, classroom walk-outs provide an opportunity to discuss democracy with their teachers. Some pupils feel they are not being heard, but unlike their Iraqi counterparts, they do have a voice.

Ex-servicemen and women have also expressed concern that young people do not know enough about Saddam's regime; pupils' interest and outrage can be channelled into an investigation of this. At primary level, pupils need to use their voices; to talk about what they think they know and how they are feeling. One student teacher recently heard a Year 4 pupil in the playground telling a friend: "It's no wonder he's a sad man because the Americans are bombing him." Other pupils might be scared and need reassurance.

Discussing war in Iraq with pupils is a sensitive issue. But there is important and stimulating work to be done in class, for which even pupils who have seemed disinterested in politics will sacrifice time in the sunshine.

Lucy Russell is a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London

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