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Current affairs can often link into many parts of the curriculum. National journalist Miranda Green, who has set up a news website for schools, explains
So far, 2011 has been an extraordinary year for news, both internationally and at home. We have witnessed Egypt, Libya and the rest of the Middle East rising up against its rulers. Japan’s disasters natural and manmade, a royal wedding, a historic referendum unsettling this experimental coalition government and the death of the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.
Even the most avid adult fan of current affairs is reeling - so how are young people taking it?
It seems the truth is far from the stereotype of the apathetic teenager and the teacher too busy to raise their eyes from the daily grind: since launching The Day at the start of January, we have found a strong appetite from treaters and pupils for news of the “Big Wide World”.
And this hunger has been sharpened by strong hints that the government’s review of the national curriculum could see citizenship sidelined. A campaign has been mounted to try to save it, and we have become involved.
This is partly because we are hearing about the positive effects on a class which might, for example, rather than catching up on homework or reading, now spend tutor time in the morning discussing their reactions to a provocative speech on multiculturalism by David Cameron, or the implications of Osams bin Laden’s killing for East-West relations.
The benefits of politics and current affairs in schools, offered in a classroom-friendly format, are immense. Recent research shows, for example, that boys’ literacy can get a boost from them being offered reading matter about the real world. The new GCSE English specifications about “speaking and listening” are helped by regular, lively classroom debate about issues in the news. Regular exposure to figures and statistics - together with a motive for understanding them because they relate to the real world - helps functional maths.
But most of all, perhaps, there is a growing feeling that awareness of current affairs and news gives some students an advantage because they develop a level of what you might call “political literacy”.
Employers’ organisations and specialist university entrance tutors have told us that pupils who are unable to demonstrate a good understanding of the world in which they live miss out on opportunities and are not equipped for today’s cut-throat competition for college places and graduate jobs. A candidate that can understand context will trump one with only a narrow understanding.
The intangible benefits that come from confidence about how to interpret the news and debate the issues can also feed into a positive cycle of building self-esteem. As academics in the US found in a study of teenagers’ news consumption habits, some young people can find a new sense of pride in their growing ability to understand and interpret current events and make sense of media reports.
The same piece of research found that this is not always the case, however, and contains a warning for parents, teachers and media organisations: a fearful spiral can push some teenagers towards ignorance.
Young people need news coverage that caters to their particular needs for background information and explanation, and their desire to take positive action on a topic that interests them. This is because, the academics write, mainstream news does not just leave teenagers cold, it makes them anxious and stressed about the state of the world.
This anxiety - and a repulsion from the endless negativity and bias they detect in a lot of mainstream news - is behind much of the tendency to switch off, either literally or figuratively, from news coverage.
If we let this happen, the apathy spreads. Particularly if citizenship, and all the expertise in teaching and curriculum design that has built up in the last few years, is allowed to wither on the vine as an optional extra.
Early, regular help in deciphering world events and unpicking what’s really at stake in the domestic political debate can help build a new generation of switched-on, engaged and aware citizens, and - a selfish point here from a lifelong journalist - the audience, as well as the Jeremy Paxmans, of the future.