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Worlds together please

The war against Iraq has highlighted the case for a truly international curriculum, argues Tim Brighouse

You cannot escape the war, especially if you teach in one of our many multi-racial, multi-faith cities such as London or Birmingham. It is here, not in the less cosmopolitan shires, that the largest and most vocal pupil demonstrations have taken place.

Last week, I also discovered a north-south divide in attitudes when I happened to see the outcome of two brilliant tutorial periods. In one group of 30 in the North, 20 - nearly all boys - supported the war; in the southern group only four - again all boys - were in favour.

The difference may well be because the southern pupils were a mixture of races and faiths, unlike their northern counterparts. They were therefore used to living with and learning about different cultural habits, histories and attitudes. The southern group of Year 9s began with a discussion of a Sun headline, "Saddam executes our boys". Guided by their tutor, the students went on to discuss and vote on the most important among the 19 declarations of human rights agreed in 1948.

It was impressive and reassuring that their top two were the right to an education and that "all rights should apply whatever your sex, race, colour, religion, political opinion, wealth or country of origin".

When city youngsters appear to find the concept of a single national identity more problematic than they would have done 50 years ago, and when the United Nations, which should be building mutual understanding and tolerance, shows signs of being terminally damaged by the conflict over Iraq, is it timely to campaign for an international as well as a national curriculum?

And if it is, should one objective of the post-war agenda be to argue for that in New York and Brussels? For the future harmony of our multi-cultural cities it would be wise for the UK to take a lead and perhaps pilot such a venture. Clearly the content of any international curriculum should be slim.

First, media studies should be a core subject of any curriculum. The media are part of most children's lives. Understanding the media is key to anyone's understanding not just of their own country but of others. It is also an essential life-skill. But it would be insufficient to consider only one country's media. After all, in some countries the media are unaccountable but profoundly affect the way governments conduct their business while in others they are controlled by the state.

Second, religious education should also be part of the core. Here I would be looking for an international equivalent of the Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education, which in each LEA build hard-won agreement on what should be covered about each religion.

Cultural understanding would be the final core subject. This would map for all our youngsters the multitude of different cultures from which we all come. So great and rich is the range of possibilities that it would be impossible to cover all.

A guiding principle for schools might be to start by covering all the cultures represented in their student population as well as a dominant and minority culture from each of the continents of the world. All three core subjects would be modular in design and examinable. Underpinning this core would be agreement about values, perhaps best set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights agreed all those years ago.

In the developed world we might also set an example by requiring all schools to have internet links with another school in each of the six continents. Perhaps, too, the charitable habits of schools could be focused on raising cash each year to start a school in those many parts of the underdeveloped world still needing them.

For 100 years we have made precious little progress towards a peaceful world order and now is the time to involve the young to see if we can do better. If they all learned something in common, it would be a first step.

Tim Brighouse is the commissioner for London schools Book of the Week, Friday magazine, 24

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