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Potters' wheel starts to turn

Nicholas Pyke looks at how the "worst place in Britain" is pioneering a radical community initiative

If ever a city needed help with its sense of civic pride, that city is Stoke-on-Trent. Its own residents recently voted it the worst place in Britain. So Stoke is as good a place as any for an experimental project promoting community values and citizenship in school.

The initiative is partly a reaction to the national curriculum, which introduces citizenship as a compulsory subject in secondary schools from September. But it is also a response to the high unemployment and low aspirations that have long distinguished the collection of five north Staffordshire towns that make up the Potteries. Stoke's Citizenship Education Forum has already attracted the interest of Downing Street, where it is seen as a potential model for local authorities across the country. It was created three years ago by the Citizenship Foundation and the city council's Young People's Health and Wellbeing Project.

The forum now comprises more than 40 members from a variety of local interests including schools, the youth service, professional football clubs, the police, voluntary groups, theatres and Staffordshire University. Together they have helped ensure that citizenship is thoroughly embedded in the 13 Stoke schools taking part in the project (six primary, six secondary and one special school) although the subject takes many different forms ranging from traditional ploys like mock elections through to the more unusual. At Thistley Hough High School, for example, all the Year 10 pupils take turns to staff the reception desk. At Blurton High School all the older pupils study for a GCSE in sociology, a course which includes citizenship. The pupils have also produced The Blurton Way, a newsletter sent to 2,500 homes in the surrounding area. At Haywood High School the forum has been able to support an active school council which, according to the pupils, has lobbied successfully for better and more affordable food, a breakfast scheme and new lockers.

The primary schools in the forum are taking citizenship seriously, too, even though it is not a compulsory subject for younger children. Monday mornings see a weekly citizenship discussion at Weston Coyney Junior School, for example, where this term's topic has been "community". Litter, recycling, the environment and human rights have all cropped up. Weston Coyney, in the south-east of the city, has even persuaded many of its children to attend a voluntary, extra-curricular citizenship club, which recently helped devise a school quiz on European awareness. The children decided that the 10p entry fees will be donated to the Donna Louise Trust, a local charity which hopes to establish a children's hospice.

Year 5 teacher Luan Bott has her hands full co-ordinating both citizenship and PSHE for the school - although in practice, she says, the two subjects often overlap. The school is committed to citizenship for two reasons at least - to help the children deal with the subject at secondary school, where it becomes compulsory, and also because the values at the heart of it are important in their own right: "We want to send our children out into the world as good citizens."

Weston Coyney recently had a visit from a long-running US project, Streetlaw, brought over specially by the Citizenship Foundation. Streetlaw, based in Washington DC, has devised a project called Youth Act, which teaches young people the value of campaigning and lobbying. It even claims to have helped groups of children amend state laws in the US. Stoke hopes to foster a similar initiative in the city, where a panel of pupils is already involved in helping administer its pound;32 million Single Regeneration Budget.

The forum is also working with a special school, the all-age Aynsley School at Blythe Bridge. The pupils, who are judged to have moderate learning difficulties, have a personal interest in citizenship, They think it involves treating people equally but, in contrast, they find themselves discriminated against and even bullied by other children because they attend a special school. They have made their views clear in a moving presentation at a conference for teachers, pupils and youth workers at the new Britannia Stadium, the home of Stoke City Football Club. Part of the forum's strategy is to sponsor high-profile events of this kind. Thanks to the forum the city has become one of three pilot areas for the national Citizenship Values Award, organised by the Citizenship Foundation and the Institute for Global Ethics. The idea is that schools and youth groups will demonstrate how they put values based on human rights into practice.

One of the forum's next tasks is to create a directory of contacts in the area to help teachers with the citizenship curriculum, and to launch the ARC Theatre's anti-racist video My England - if the money lasts. Until now, the project has been sponsored with money from the Britannia Building Society, which is based in the city. But this is coming to an end and the Citizenship Foundation is looking for new backers.

"It's in the interests of local and national communities to invest in citizenship education," says Carrie Supple, who is overseeing the project for the Citizenship Foundation. "The thinking behind the forum is that it is the responsibility of the whole community, not just schools."

Citizenship Foundation, Ferroners House, Shaftesbury Place, Aldersgate Street, London EC2Y 8AA. Tel: 020 7367 0500 Email: info@citfou.org.ukwww.citfou.org.ukStreetlaw: www.streetlaw.org

Nicholas Pyke is a freelance writer

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