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What should we tell them about the war?

As troops head for the Gulf again, schools should help young people come to terms with the issues, says Ewan Aitken.

MET a distraught colleague recently. When I asked what the problem was, she said simply "the war". But we're not at war, I replied. "No," she said, "but it feels like it." She had bought a copy of the local paper with the banner headline "Reservists called up". A woman, a stranger, had looked over at the paper and said simply: "It must be what our mothers felt like when they heard that conscription was coming."

Whatever any of us think about what is happening in the Middle East and the decisions being taken daily by Britain and America, what will turn public opinion one way or another will be how we feel. To truly understand what we think about something as huge as a war in our name, we must first understand how we feel about war and its consequences.

I remember when I first heard that the Gulf War had begun. I was driving to the little inner city church in Buffalo, New York State, where I was pastor. It felt strange to be in America when Britain was at war, even though America was the main protagonist. Initially, many of my congregation took the view that the rights and wrongs of the debate didn't really concern them. Like most Americans I met, they just supported their boys abroad.

The first American soldier to be killed, however, had attended Sunday school in my little church some 12 years previously. His family had since moved away but, suddenly, it was one of theirs that had been killed. The debate felt very different. They decided that they were against the war.

They even asked me to shorten a service so that they could go on a protest march.

War affects us all, even wars fought a long way away. They affect how we feel about our nation, our decision-makers and those who take a view different to ours on the war. They can bring a huge sense of insecurity to daily life without us ever being aware of that feeling. This is especially true when someone we know or know of is involved. The decisions we make about what is important, about our priorities and about how we react to others will be affected. They may be the same as they would have been otherwise, but the process we will have gone through to reach those decisions will have been different.

This is particularly true in schools, especially high schools. With more than a quarter of the Armed Forces heading to the Gulf and up to 180,000 reservists waiting for call-up, the chances of someone in most schools being directly affected are high.

Should the decision be taken to go to war against Iraq, the Stop the War campaign has called for, among other things, all schoolchildren to go on strike in protest. This call is modelled on the South African anti-apartheid movements, where children often led all-out strike protests.

The situation here is fundamentally different. In South Africa, the level of political consciousness was significantly higher because apartheid had been part of people's lives for so long. People, even in their teens and younger, knew what they felt about it and acted accordingly. Here, most teenagers will not have experienced the nation being at war, except perhaps Kosovo, and that was a conflict fought almost entirely from 20,000 feet.

What all of us involved in education need to do, however, is create as many different opportunities to help young people explore their feelings about being part of a nation preparing for or at war if it comes to it. I am not just talking about opportunities in religious and moral education or personal and social education but about using all areas of the curriculum so that young people can formulate as wide a picture as possible.

I am not talking about exploring war and its consequences every minute of every day. I do mean exploring war in as wide a variety of contexts as possible. Whether through poetry in English, or world resources in geography, or communication methods in physics or even biological warfare in chemistry, the possibilities are many and varied. It needs to be done very carefully and managed strategically. But, given that the effects of preparing for or being at war will be present and influential, it seems to me that devising such a strategic approach will be necessary.

Once they have begun to work out what they feel about the issue, they can begin to work out what they believe about it. Then they can decide what they want to do about it, whatever that might be.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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