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Let's parley about what matters

The first children's parliament in Midlothian has paved the way for others to follow. Su Clark reports on progress in teaching children their rights and listening to them

Sixteen Midlothian children are sitting quietly in a circle in Stobhill Primary's hall. As one boy talks about what makes a nice environment, everyone's eyes are on him; there are few interruptions and there is practically no fidgeting.

It's a behaviour pattern that carries on for the whole morning, despite having few restrictions placed on them by teachers or any other adults.

"I like coming because I get the day off school," admits one of the children, Rebecca Webb, 11, a P7 pupil at another Gorebridge school, St Andrew's Primary. "But also because it is really interesting. Our group means something."

They represent the first children's parliament in Scotland and this is their eighth meeting. The children's parliament in South Ayrshire held its inaugural meeting in January and soon the Western Isles will launch one, bringing children together from the Uists and Benbecula. The meetings will follow roughly the Midlothian model of discussion balanced with fun and creative workshops.

By 2007 there will be children's parliaments in 20 local authorities across the country, each one giving 20 children between the ages of 10 and 14 a platform to discuss children's rights and the issues that concern them and to give them a voice.

"There is a lot of lip service paid to active citizenship and developing democracy," says Cathy McCulloch, director of the national voluntary organisation The Children's Parliament. "We talk about citizenship but not children's rights, yet we need a way to help children understand they have those rights.

"Talking about it on a Wednesday afternoon as part of the curriculum isn't enough. Nor is trying to reach them when they are 15. We need to actively engage with them when they are young."

Ms McCulloch cites a school which introduced a children's rights agenda into the curriculum. In the year before the agenda started there had been two child protection incidents. During the initiative's first year, there were 18.

"It's not that there was suddenly a lot more abuse going on," says Ms McCulloch. "The children just had more confidence to speak out and to trust the adults."

When the first children's parliament was launched last year, 20 pupils from across Midlothian were invited or elected to join. Half were purposely chosen because they faced some sort of disadvantage, to ensure the group was not dominated by articulate, middle-class children.

Connor Zahariev, 10, from Glencourse Primary in Penicuik, reckons he was picked because he is from Bulgaria. Yet he and all the other children appear articulate and confident.

"This group has helped their self-esteem and confidence and has developed their interpersonal skills," says Maureen McDonald, Stobhill Primary's headteacher and one of the group's two adult ambassadors, who have volunteered to work with the children.

The other is Elaine Hannah, the education support officer (enterprise) at Midlothian Council. The seniority of the ambassadors reflects the importance the authority is trying to place on the parliament.

Already the group has been involved in Heads Up Scotland, the Scottish Executive's national project for children's mental health and emotional well-being, and some will be joining the children's commissioner, Kathleen Marshall, when she interviews candidates for two new posts within her organisation.

"Adults and those in power do want to hear what children have to say about issues but it is difficult finding ways to link them together," says Ms McCulloch. "Creating a network of children's parliaments is the ideal way to channel children's views."

The next step is to bring adults with influence into the group to listen to the children and discuss their concerns. "It will not be a questions and answers session with the adults talking; it will be a conversation with the children," says Ms McCulloch.

The parliament is also proving a positive way of feeding information to other children. Most of the participants in the Midlothian group have had to stand up in front of a whole school assembly at least once and tell their fellow pupils about what is happening.

"I have to get up and talk to the class after each session," says Neil Lovett, 11, of Hawthornden Primary in Bonnyrigg. "And sometimes the headteacher asks us to talk to the assembly, which is really scary."

Another two members, Andrew Blackie, 10, and Rachael Murray, 11, from Cornbank St James's Primary in Penicuik, have written articles for Children in Scotland's magazine.

The attitude of the children as they sit discussing issues suggests the format of the children's parliament is right. The mix of serious talking and fun, creative workshops, with a guiding hand from the adults (rather than a lead), is enough to keep their attention and give them a sense of responsibility. And it is obvious that they enjoy being taken seriously.

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