It's time to listen to the children

NOW that children's rights are being taken seriously in Whitehall in the wake of the Waterhouse report on child abuse in north Wales, this seems an excellent time to push for their voices to be listened to across the board. The first priority has to be to provide effective and accessible channels for children and young people exposed to abuse and ill-treatment, and the new commissionerdirector and the promised cross-departmental unit are long overdue. But they are only a first step.

The time is ripe now to stop concentrating on what ought to be done to young people, in school and outside it, to make them into our idea of model wage earning citizens, and instead to give them more opportunities to develop their own views and the capacity to shape their own lives. The recent survey of the nation's 8.7m 13 to 24- year-olds found that nearly a third of those eligible to vote at the last election did not bother to do so - a clear sign that they felt no ownership of the democratic process.

If cohorts of schoolchildren are to be persuaded that they can make a difference, they need to be given both the knowledge and skills to make up their own minds, and the chance to practise the basics of action and debate.

Of course developing such questioning attitudes can appear threatening to existing institutions but there are some promising signs now that the attitudes that stamped on political education in schools under the last Conservative government are working their way out of the system, in spite of the apparent hold of the current thought-police.

In the good old, bad old days of the Inner London Education Authority, there used to be pupil observers on school governing bodies, and very revealing they were too about what was really happening in the school, as well as relishing the rare responsibility to speak up for their peer group. That voice disappeard along with the ILEA and the new order for governance, which gave a stronger role to parents and teachers, but disempowered pupils. Apparently nobody raised the pupil issue seriously when MPs on the select committee took another look at school governors a few months back.

School councils, however, do seem to be making a comeback, though there is a constant danger that they will give the illusion of pupil-power, rather than the reality.

"Phoney-democracy" was the warning that Danny Thorpe, an 18-year-old Active Community Award winner, gave at his recent National Children's Bureau presentation. The award itself marks an interesting phase in the development of the bureau, which adopted a joined-up approach to children's services long before the present government, and now works vigorously advising on implementation and policy development. For many years after it was set up to promote the interests and well-being of children and young people across every aspect of their lives, the bureau had the strapline "The powerful voice for the child." Now the emphasis has shifted subtly, and the first of its key new aims is "ensuring the views of children and young people are listened to and taken into account at all times".

We have to hope that ministers will also listen to this message, as well as to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The best news lies in David Blunkett's insistence that citizenship become part of the compulsory school curriculum, and with a blueprint that does include doing as well as listening. There is no better way to counter the black arts of spin than to nurture the disposition to question, to find out - and to use - the facts for yourself. That may supply the essential balance between the subject-based curriculum, and the open-ended prospects of the Internet.

Patricia Rowan is a former editor of The TES

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