All in it together

31st March 2000 at 01:00
Citizenship can cover anything from fighting deportation orders in east London to campaigning for wheelchair access in the Yorkshire countryside. Wendy Wallace meets the pupils who are getting involved

From the outside, Forest Gate community school in east London looks more like a fire station than a school, with its brutalist red brick walls and high wire fence. Inside, it's a different story with Year 7s pointillist paintings on the walls in reception and the slogan "Art Transforms Life" in huge hand-made letters on the wall in the hall.

The Government plans to introduce citizenship education into schools from 2002, but here at Forest Gate, children are already engaged with the issues that affect their community. At 3.30 on Thursday afternoon, they stream into the library for the Refugee Club. Proceedings begin with a discussion of club business: on the agenda today is news of an anti-deportation campaign and the competition for a new club name and slogan ("Think Twice, Be Nice", pupil Dipal Patel suggests).

The thriving club is run by Miriam Scharf, an ESL teacher, with support from local voluntary organisations. Today pupils have the choice of sport, cookery, IT or music. In the computer club, 14-year-old Jabril Osman from Somalia is doing his homework. He has been here less than a year, has no computer at home and is finding learning English "a bit difficult", he says through interpreter Luul Elmi, from the East London African and Caribbean counselling service. He likes London "because it is safe". Across the room, 13-year-old Lucy Wanjiro, who came here two years ago from Kenya, is doing her DT homework.

Ten per cent of the 1,020 pupils at Forest Gate school are refugees, so anti-deportation campaigns and protests to the Home Office about the treatment of asylum-seekers - two of the activities that club members have recently been involved in - are important to them. Here, citizenship means caring about each other, says Miriam Scharf. "Responsibility for each other is where it's going to start from. It's very concrete for them, that other pupils come from other countries and can then get letters instructing them to turn up at Heathrow, and suddenly they're not here any more."

Of the 32 children registered for the club, 11 have come to Britain during the current school year. Recent arrivals are from Kosovo rather than Somalia, as the school picks up the delayed echo of world events. But not all the children at the club are refugees. Fourteen-year-old Robina Seto comes just for the company. Kunal Pithiya, 13, rolling spicy kebabs between his palms in the food technology lab, finds club activities un. "It gives children an outlet," says school nurse Yvonne George, who helps out with sports options. "Lots of them are very lonely and it helps them to get to know other kids." With widespread poverty in the borough and transience even amongst non-refugees, this is an important part of the club's aims.

While the Forest Gate club works to support children newly arrived from war zones, pupils at Settlebeck, a 114-pupil comprehensive in the Yorkshire Dales, are engaged in a project to increase access to the surrounding countryside for people with disabilities. They undertook an accessibility audit of footpaths, trying to negotiate stiles and muddy footpaths with wheelchairs, and suggested access solutions to the Yorkshire Dales national park. As a result, two paths were resurfaced and gates for wheelchair users redesigned. The pupils were also moved to write to the Government to protest against cuts in disability benefits. "They've certainly got a sense that they have analysed a problem, become aware of the issues and acted on that," says acting head Dave Smith. "They've got involved and seen a positive outcome. It's people power."

David Blunkett can't complain. After the annual British Social Attitudes survey found last year that 34 per cent of teenagers had "no interest whatever" in politics, Mr Blunkett said he wanted young people to be "informed, critical and responsible". "It is vital that all young people are aware of their duties and rights. Citizenship education will make them more self-confident and responsible in and beyond the classroom," he added. The sometimes nebulous concept of citizenship ("I don't consciously think of myself as a citizen. I'm English and I live in Brentwood," one interviewee told Radio 4) is intended to account for 5 per cent of the national curriculum.

Both the Forest Gate and the Settlebeck activities are supported by grants from the Barclays New Futures scheme, launched in collaboration with Community Service Volunteers in 1995. The scheme, worth pound;1 million a year, is intended to foster citizenship activities. Awards range from pound;500 for self-managed groups of students to pound;7,000 for larger scale ideas involving multiple schools and community partners. This week 104 schools in England, Scotland and Wales were awarded grants ranging from pound;500 to pound;2,000 from Barclays New Futures for the coming year.

Secondary schools, special schools and sixth-form colleges can all apply and will receive application forms for next year's Barclays New Futures awards in the autumn. For further details contact Kallaway on: 020 7221 7883, or

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