The NGOs corrupting the curriculum

Annoyed, suspicious and made to feel guilty... school kids don't much like NGOs in the classroom.

‘I think that the words on the poster “Donate Now, you can make a difference” are all bullshit really.’

This was the response of one pupil from Northern Plains High School in New Zealand when asked about the development educational work of the NGO sector in the school. The pupil was taking part in a study led by researcher Rachel Tallon entitled What Do Young People Think of Development? An exploration into the meanings young people make from NGO media. It is a timely study. Across the Western world, NGOs are increasingly involved in shaping the curriculum and training teachers.

Tallon approached her research from the often-neglected premise that children do not just passively receive the messages and knowledge presented to them by adults. Instead, they interpret and respond. Conducting the study across five New Zealand schools, involving 111 pupils and seven teachers, she found that many children were left feeling guilty and frustrated by NGO lessons. They felt ‘manipulated’ and their voices ‘repressed’. The reaction of teachers was more mixed.

At one level, it is not a surprise to hear that NGO educational materials are problematic. NGOs exist for their own charitable and political ends. There’s no doubt that teachers, especially geography teachers, find the material provided by NGOs, with workers stationed across the world, useful, but NGOs produce this material primarily to promote their agenda. As Tallon puts it, children are ‘groomed for a form of narrow philanthropy’.

What is novel about Tallon’s study is that it offers insight into the consequences of NGO school work. She found that there was a difference in how the pupils responded to what they were learning about life in developing countries and how they responded to the NGOs. Their main reactions to learning about the developing world were: disbelief, sadness, a desire to help and a sense of distance from their own lives. When asked about NGOs, most pupils thought that they ‘did good work’, but knew little about this work. However, Tallon did find that the pupils’ main emotional response to NGO lessons was again sadness and a desire to help, but also scepticism, rejection, guilt, annoyance and fatigue.

So, while some children embraced the paternalistic NGO narrative and felt empowered to undertake charitable actions as suggested by the NGOs, others reacted with a sense of guilt, frustration and annoyance. These children responded defensively, they were suspicious about how NGOs spend their money and sceptical about how much difference small actions could make. In particular, pupils were keenly aware that they were being manipulated by the NGOs. Schooled in an age of photoshop, they were sceptical of the authenticity of images placed before them and felt that the materials presented ‘did not tell the whole story’.

Worryingly, Tallon found pupils initially reluctant to talk about NGOs and their work in developing countries. She revealed that they had been ‘conditioned to keep their scepticism silent’. However, when they realised that Tallon was not representing an NGO, the children were full of questions and eager for a real discussion about the developing world, even following her out to the car park afterwards. They felt constrained by the narrative presented by NGOs, and unable to challenge the humanitarian agenda: ‘How can one criticise institutions which are helping the poor?’

The teachers in the study reacted in different ways to the work of NGOs. Some embraced the opportunities it presented and welcomed the humanitarian agenda. Others were more sceptical and thought that NGO materials needed to be critiqued, although there was little evidence in the study that this was happening. Tallon concluded that NGOs weren’t helping children to connect with people in developing countries, they were distancing them. She observed that NGOs often ‘displace… the diverse voice of the global South’, preventing pupils from having an open dialogue. This was one of the children’s complaints: NGO images were ‘frozen, voiceless faces’; and they ‘desired to hear more from the Other in a more meaningful manner’.

So children who are turned off by the NGO sector and those who feel empowered by it both end up making little meaningful connection with the developing world. Either they simply don’t engage with the development discourse or they partake in superficial acts of charity. Thus, Tallon concludes, NGO material ‘denies young people the opportunity to fully engage with their own humanity and to engage with the Other on terms other than a one-sided charitable relationship’. Maybe the NGO sector can learn something from the voices of children in this study. Only by entering into a meaningful and openly critical dialogue can children begin to understand and truly empathise with the challenges of living in countries in which people face significant adversity and lower standards of living. Such an opportunity cannot be provided by organisations which exist to maintain a paternalistic relationship between the West and the South. This raises the question of why NGOs in England are being given more money to increase the work they do in schools.

In September, the UK Department for International Development (DfID) launched a new initiative to bring development education into over 50 per cent of UK schools. This Global Learning Programme provides £20million over a five-year period to organisations including Oxfam, Think Global (formerly the Development Education Agency), the Geographical Association, the Development Education Research Centre and the publisher, Pearson. Participating schools are being asked to appoint a development-education practitioner to coordinate cross-curricular initiatives.

It speaks to the confusion of education policy in this country that while Michael Gove’s Department for Education has been revising the curriculum to reflect ‘core subject knowledge’, the DfID is bank-rolling NGOs to undertake work in schools that undermines academic knowledge as the central purpose of education. The Global Learning Programme aims to engage children in efforts to reduce global poverty and develop a mindset of ‘sustainability’ and ‘social justice’, while it also claims to promote knowledge of the developing world. Reading Tallon’s thesis, we know that the Global Learning Programme is likely to leave many young people feeling guilty, frustrated and only occasionally empowered, but it will do little to help them understand, and connect with, people’s lives in the developing world. To do this we need independent resources that are designed for educational purposes rather than buttressing our own fragile sense of moral purpose. We also need an education system committed to developing pupils’ understanding of subjects such as geography, politics and economics rather than manipulating children’s emotions to foster bureaucratic values and dispositions.

Alex Standish is a lecturer in geography education at Institute of Education, University of London. He is the author of The False Promise of Global Learning: Why Education Needs Boundaries, published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Rachel Tallon can be contacted here.

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