By Adam Smyth
‘We value the diversity that exists’- So says the motto of James Gillespie’s High School on their on line website. To the cynic with a prejudicial eye this might seem like a misguided hyperbolic statement, but the school, situated in Edinburgh’s Marchmont area, proved just how open minded and diplomatic their pupils are by hosting their inaugural Model United Nation’s (MUN) conference on Friday the 11th of November.
Dubbed MUNG-1 after the head of government summaries that have taken place to discuss many of the world’s ills, the conference was an opportunity for pupils, aged from S1 to S5 to step into the shoes of World leaders for a day. Simply put, the concept simulates an UN meeting with children taking on the roles of delegates from the many countries that the international organisation is comprised of.
As I walked through the School gates and into the assembly hall/sports gym due to host the conference, I expected giddy giggles and perhaps some organised chaos and disorder , as was the trend during my own school days. Instead, I was greeted by smartly dressed young men and women who seemed very measured in their actions and words. If they were nervous about the days’ events ahead of them they weren’t showing it. Laura Halliday, a Gillespie teacher and MUN veteran herself informed me that every aspect of today’s organisation has been organised by the students. Pupils from George Watsons College, Balerno High School and Penicuik High School joined those already at James Gillespies for a full day of debating current world affairs that the UN is concerned with. After introductory speeches by Ms Halliday, MUN secretary general and pupil Rachel Moffat, Kenneth Stewart (a representative of Edinburgh’s branch of the United Nation’s Association) and Rob Crawford (George Watson’s College MUN Director), the mass of pupils split off into four committees to discuss issues categorised under either ‘environment’, ‘politics’, ‘disarmament’ or ‘human rights’. The children, obviously inspired by the carpe diem- styled speeches they had just heard, wasted no time in making their given country’s attitude recognised amongst the many delegates.
As I sat in on the environment committee, I was shocked at how articulate and composed the children were when discussing the very complex issue of who should be held accountable for the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Rob Crawford, who was sitting beside me, informed me that children as young as primary seven and even a deaf child were taking part in this debate. What was very noticeable right from the off was how controlled everything was- two secretary generals granted permission for delegates to put forward their points of view and occasionally denied them if they felt they had talked for too long. Also, much like what one could find in a real UN summit, the delegates were allowed to pass notes between themselves to confer on any correlating perspectives. Even though the whole concept was of course a simulation, the children took it very seriously and were focused throughout the debate.
During the day I found time to interview Rob Crawford, the MUN director of George Watson’s College. Although the children were in control of the Lion’s share of today’s event, Crawford is a respected figurehead at his school and others for spreading the awareness of MUN to schoolchildren.
AS: How did you get involved in MUN?
RC: It started with people’s involvement and enthusiasm quite simply. We had done European youth parliament for about ten years successfully and in 2003 we visited a MUN conference in Belfast. We had got no further with European youth parliament and the senior pupils, the 5th year boys asked if there was something else we can do. I researched MUN online and within six months we went along to a conference in Belfast Methodist college and since then we’ve never looked back.
AS: So at that point you weren’t aware of MUN. Was it hard to get a following for it at first?
RC: I went online and found a conference that would suit us timewise in the school calender and we went to Belfast and came back with four awards from that first conference and that was us. The kids were hooked, they loved the banter and interchange with other young people and since 2003 we’ve gone from 12 kids I took to that first conference to now having 50 kids regularly on a Wednesday lunchtime debating world affairs. For the last 5 years we have run our own conference in Watson’s and we’re now up to capacity of 615 delegates from all over the UK and elsewhere throughout the world.
AS: MUN stands for model united nations. The concept is that kids research a given country’s attitudes to world events and areas of conflict within the United Nations and argue and debate them out. What sort of skills and experience will this give them in later life?
RC: How long have you got? (laughs) I’ve sat manys a time over the years we’ve done MUN and thought why do kids do this? Why do they come to my room 50 at a time on a Wednesday lunchtime to debate deforestation in the Amazon or child soldiers in central Africa? The way I’ve slanted and promoted is ‘what’s wrong with the world?’, ‘Why is it unfair and wrong?’, ‘what do we, in a rich city and country think about and what moral imperative is there on us to care about it? For me, part of the success is the caring. It matters. And part of it is that our viewpoint is very centred on Europe, a rich continent: even if we don’t personally go round thinking we are rich, we are by world standards. When the concept of MUN became clear to me that you are invited to a conference, you are told you will be another country- that other country might be Malawi. You have got, as a delegate to become Malawian and see the world through their eyes. Not Edinburgh, not Scotland, not Britain or British eyes. It informs you and opens your eyes- even though its just simulation- to things that you do not have problems with in your everyday lives e.g. You do not have difficulty accessing clean water, but if you were Malawian you might well have. Here you don’t really have a problem getting an education, if you’re Malawian you do. And so it goes on. The set up of MUN is that you suspend your disbelief: instead of thinking from an Edinburgh perspective you think from a Malawian perspective. The kids go for it. There’s a safety net in that. They have facts that they can research, all the information and facilities are online, accessible to anyone who wishes to access it. You can type in Malawi into the BBC website and find out what makes Malawi tick. They keep their websites up to date and so we keep ours up to date. The safety net of being given a country to become with having specific topics to discuss narrows down the panic room- they haven’t got room to panic so much. I, as an educator give them the research sources and tell them go for it. They come back to me and they realise that these things matter and that for me is one of the most satisfying things in 32 years of teaching.
AS: If we get into the nitty gritty then- we’ve got four groups which are split up into committees. They go off into different classrooms and debate amongst themselves. Subjects are environment, politics, disarmament and human rights. We’ve just been to an environment session and that was all to do with who is to blame for the deforestation of the Amazon. There were some very astute answers in that session, with some more informed than others. It seems the kids have to take an objective stance from that country and not subjective from their own individualism. Do you think there are both good and bad points about that or what are your thoughts about that?
RC: No there are only good and better points about that, because one of the other aspects that really enriches the wider educational experience is that the delegates/pupils who are called on to be, for example the United States, where big powerful multinationals based in the US- McDonald’s dare I say it!- are in the Amazon basin cutting down the rainforest so that they can create room to graze their cattle from which they get their burgers etc. That’s the rather time worn example. The delegates of the US have to defend that because they are defenders of what the Americans would call freedom- that means economic freedom too. If however they are representing Brazil which I understand has increasingly become more protectionist of their own environment, they will have to counter the US’s economically powerful arguments. This may be debated not just in an environment committee but in an economics committee too with a different slant on it but addressing the same problem. They have, no matter what their own personal viewpoint, to defend Brazil’s point of view. The delegate there may not be a tree hugger. They may think that McDonald’s is absolutely right and they like their burgers. Or the American delegate posing as America may be violently against cutting down rainforests because they see the ecological and social damage that that brings, but they have to get their head around promoting the US cause. It makes the kids put forward topics and points of view that are not their own and secondly it helps them to understand that they have to learn- as many adults don’t do- to empathise with other people’s points of view and it challenges their own. But the whole point behind MUN and the UN in general is that consensus is being sought. This is not adversarial politics which we see on our screens daily. UN politics is about seeking a consensus that will suit as many people as possible, not about winning your own point of view. The reality of that in New York may be different, but in MUN at least we still suspend that particular disbelief.
AS: How far has the MUN come in Scotland and what are the future plans for it? I believe Napier has been talking about doing a film documentary about it?
RC: The sky’s the limit! Well, it depends on how much room for manoeuvre the employers in the education sector are prepared to give to their staff who want to run with this. I’m delighted to say that even though Watson’s kicked off MUN at a school level by and large, others schools have sprung up in the Edinburgh area with their own one day conferences: James Gillespies, Penicuik High School, I’ve got three senior high school pupils coming to speak to me from Balerno on Monday about them doing their one day conference. MUN generally has pockets of interest really that have spread organically. Teachers have heard of it, come along to observe perhaps, or sent along kids to observe. I’ve also run training courses for kids in the past which I no longer need to do as there is enough interest and knowledge out there. There are schools which come to our conference from Perth, from Aberdeen, from the central belt, from Stirling, from Glasgow, from Berwickshire now. Where does it go? Well, I am still pushing hard at the national level to get it recognised for being the very very valuable educational experience that it is. Some colleagues have said that as a curriculum for excellence MUN ticks all the boxes and then some. That’s absolutely the case. Anyone who looks at MUN with educational eyes and particularly curriculum for excellence eyes will be amazed at the skills at which pupils can accrue, and do so willingly. I don’t make them come and discuss deforestation! They come because they can have the banter with their lunch and pals. All of that is legitimate to get them in the door and then once they are there lo and behold , they do start to care about the world’s problems and that their generation may do something rather better than what mine has managed to do.
As well as a discussion with Rob Crawford, I conversed with Secretary generals Rachel Moffat and John Percival about their attitudes to MUN.
AS: How did today’s committee debate fare?
Rachel: I think it went really well overall. We tried to get as many people participating as we could and actually everyone spoke which is a good thing.
John- I think today got off to a rough start as we couldn’t find out where other schools were turning up but we soon got that sorted. It’s been very nice to just try something out at Gillespies as this is something usually only big, private schools would do.
AS: How did you guys get involved with this whole thing in the first place? What have you learnt from it so far?
Rachel: I got involved because one of my friends was going to do it and asked me whether I wanted to do it too. I also quite enjoy things like politics and debating so I thought I’d just give it a go and I’ve loved it ever since. I just really enjoy the experiences and I’ve loved all of my conferences and its just taught me so much. I don’t know what I would have done without it.
John: In S2 we were doing a mock election and the person who was standing for the class for labour didn’t turn up so I had to quickly ad lib a short speech and the teacher recommended I should join MUN and so I did that same day.
AS: What’s the rest of the itinerary for today? A general assembly?
Rachel: Yes we have a general assembly where we will address the topic of war on drugs and how it should be tackled. Then there is an emergency debate which places us in an emergency situation where we have to write resolutions and debate.
AS: Any future plans for MUN after today? After all this is James Gillespies first experience of it.
John: I find it entertaining because this is going to be our fourth conference for this year which is new- usually we only get one or two. There’s a big one coming up at George Watsons which is an entire weekend. Hopefully there’ll be an MUNG, like G2 soon. But the school is going to get refurbished and we all break up in two years’ time so hopefully something will be done.
As I wished the Secretary generals the best of luck with the rest of the day’s debating, John’s last words about the children leaving high school in two years time stayed with me. It reinforced a reminder that, like many experiences a child could have, the opportunity to be become a part of MUN and develop a taste for debating may be fleeting. However, when looking towards the future, the possibility of future generations of schoolchildren being exposed to MUN seems highly likely. John informs me that next year’s March MUN summit at George Watson’s College will see delegates come from as far away as North Africa as well as from other international areas, besides other participants from other parts of the UK. As the MUN grows, the future for diplomatic open minded children appears bright.
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