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Richard Addis asks when is the right time to introduce children to current affairs?
Of all the recent questions posed by my rapidly growing-up son – including ‘is God dead?’ and ‘why isn’t my half-sister’s mother my half-mother?’ – the most difficult to answer with any modicum of sense was about Osama bin Laden. If he was such an evil monster why did so many people admire and believe what he told them and continue to follow his teachings to this day?
Easy enough to say that all his thousands of followers were evil monsters too. But when you think about it, most evil monsters lose their power to persuade once they are in the grave. People like Hitler, Vlad the Impaler and Idi Amin were of very little importance once removed from power, let alone dead. Humanity can be duped, but not forever.
The answer – I think, to do with the religious claims of bin Laden’s teaching – was beyond me at the time and I know I fumbled it hopelessly. But it brought home the question of why, when and how children should be introduced to current affairs and how to deal with the resulting fallout.
In January this year a small group of journalists and I, who had got to know each other while working at the Financial Times, launched The Day – a daily online ‘newspaper’ for children of 12 upwards. The experience of taking this into a wide range of schools (prep, public, academy, secondary), talking to parents, teachers and pupils and meeting some of the leading education writers and thinkers has suggested some answers.
It is widely agreed that one important reason for introducing current affairs into children’s lives is that they shouldn’t live in a “bubble”. Teachers and parents tend to define the bubble differently but prescribe the same cure. For teachers the bubble is academic; a world of coursework, exams and narrow targets. For parents, the bubble is more personal; a world of family, home, games and friends.
“I want them to be aware,” says one young mother of three who came into our offices in London, “in a gentle way. I want them to know that they are incredibly privileged here in the rich West -- and that there are families in other parts of the world who are living through experiences that are incredibly different, often incredibly tough”.
Why worry them or start making them guilty? “It never would,” she says. “Children who are secure and safe are easily capable of imagining some of the hardships of life without losing that security. Just think of most of the good children’s stories – full of terrible trials and tribulations.”
Another reason many give is the value of building bridges between subjects that are studied at school and the wider world outside. “If I can talk about a volcano that is erupting right now and show a clip from the TV news”, says one former prep school head, “before discussing volcanoes in a geography class – it really helps to show that school is about the real world.”
“This is the best possible antidote to the often unspoken feeling that school is pointless”.
This leads to probably the most important argument for current affairs based teaching. There is evidence that children aware of the wider world and how the big issues link to subjects they are studying are often children who excel at school. The habit of listening to, reading and discussing current affairs in the light of academic study, gives a huge boost to the foundations of understanding and to a coherent, joined-up body of knowledge.
“The students who are excellent at maths are the ones who enjoy discussing cricket averages with their fathers and the students who are excellent at history are talking at home about the latest Saxon treasure troves,” says one independent school 6th form head.
On the question of when to start children on current affairs, we have found near-universal agreement that it is never too young. It seems primary school children can benefit from discussion of news that relates to personal themes such as ‘courage’ and ‘trust’ and issues with which they can identify. This starts the ‘habit’ and makes it easier to interest them in more complex stories later on.
As for the best tools for introducing news – there are three main options. CBBC’s Newsround is an excellent TV starter for younger children, packed with colourful stories about Harry Potter and furry animals.
First News is a huge success and does a great job of putting bright and catchy news into a weekly newspaper format, as well as having a fabulous website.
And The Day (interest already declared above!) is catching on fast for older children as a more serious online daily service, looking at three of the most significant stories of the day each day of term – including wars, tsunamis and less obvious news too such as scientific breakthroughs or startling new developments in arts or sport.