Police powers, stop and search and Asbos are some of the subjects under discussion today at the Skinner's Com-pany's School for Girls in Hackney, one of London's poorest boroughs. It's a citizenship lesson, and four volunteer lawyers from Linklaters, a City legal firm, are taking the class of Year 10 and 11 pupils.
"I have been searched by the police," complains one 15-year-old girl angrily. "My mum and I were talking about a stabbing that had happened locally. They heard us and thought I might be carrying a knife."
There is an atmosphere of resentment as the pupils discuss the groups in society they think most likely to be searched. "Black and Asian youths are targeted most by the police," says one girl. "Asians are increasingly picked on because of the fear of terrorism," says another. "They think every group of young people hanging out on the street is suspicious, even when they've done nothing wrong," says another.
The lesson is part of a free scheme organized by the Citizenship Foundation, which aims to twin schools all over the UK with practising and trainee lawyers. The lawyers, who normally spend their day advising banks, media companies and blue chip corporations, use resources covering everything from discrimination, consumer and employment law to human rights and youth justice.
The discussion turns to whether stop and search could be a good way of preventing and solving crime, prompted by Jessica Rivett, from Linklaters, and the atmosphere cools. "If there are fewer knives on the street, less people will get hurt," says one girl. "Maybe that stabbing wouldn't have happened if the police had taken the knife away," says another.
Rebecca Warren, the teacher, says: "These issues are very real in the lives of our students. They gain a lot of knowledge from the street about gangs, Asbos, courts, which is not always accurate. And they often feel they, or their peers, are being picked on for no good reason. The lawyers encourage pupils to discuss the issues and help them see things from another point of view."
Jessica enjoys her visits to the school. "It is great to be able to use our skills and knowledge to engage the girls," she says. "We aim to get them thinking and talking about what's important to them and to help them balance their attitudes."
The same group of four or five lawyers comes into the school six times a year to work with the class in small groups, building up a rapport with the pupils and helping them develop the confidence to take part in discussions.
"They act as role models for the pupils," says Rebecca. "It's good for youngsters to meet with professional people and discover they can communicate on the same level. You'd be surprised at how many students, who may appear to disrespect the law and the police, aspire to be lawyers now"
To find out more about the scheme and specially tailored packages, contact Sam Nicholson at the Citizenship Foundation on 020 7566 5038 or visit www.citizenshipfoundation.org.uk