WHAT better opportunity than the millennium for some hard thinking in schools about our role in society, our relationship to home, school and the wider community ? And what better medium for dissemination of pupils' ideas than the Internet?
Put the two together, and you have the Primary Citizenship Internet Project, brainchild of Liam McGurrin, head of St John Fisher Roman Catholic primary school in Sheffield, in collaboration with the city's police and education departments.
"Junior-school children are quite capable of coming to terms with these topics," says McGurrin. "Citizenship gets touched on in schools, but it's rather a case of the cream on the top of the trifle - there's a welter of digging to be done underneath. The Millennium is a lovely launching point - an ideal time to start afresh."
McGurrin first hatched the project a couple of years ago with a police force friend, Superintendent Phillip Carnall, who had been briefed by the Association of Chief Police Officers to explore the Internet as a force for good. McGurrin spent 10 months tracing other schools keen on IT who wanted to take part, and the project now encompasses primary schools in Sunderland, Rochdale, Devon, Hampshire, Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Dublin and London.
Pupils from St John Fisher have already used Internet "Talk boards" for electronic discussion on the uses of computers with pupils in Hampshire. There are also plans to set up video conferencing, and for European links.
The project comprises 24 topics relating to citizenship, ranging from loyalty and bullying, to rules and regulations, and the legal system. Practical activities help to engage pupils' interest, before they move on to more conceptual discussion and written work. Ten-year-olds from St John Fisher school, for instance, visited Sheffield Crown Court, where they staged their own drama of a child accused of stealing a CD, complete with barristers for the prosecution and defence, witnesses, and police "making pupils see the bobby as a friend of the school", McGurrin adds.
All project schools have set up school councils, with real opportunities to contribute to school rule-making, and each school is asked to nominate its own "outstanding citizen of the term".
Work on the citizenship topics, both practical and theoretical, is being used to build a citizenship website, together with ideas and lesson plans contributed by the Citizenship Foundation. Children's own definitions of citizenship will open the web pages.
The new website will be launched in October, by David Blunkett, McGurrin hopes, and the Irish secretary of state for education. Other schools will then be able to dip into it, or join the project, a useful resource, given that citizenship is scheduled to become a national curriculum topic from 2000. Sponsorship from Frizzell's financial services group and Research Machines, the Oxford computer firm, has supported the project thus far; more interest would be welcome, McGurrin says, to enable it to develop further.
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