Beating the law of averages

8th March 1996 at 00:00
Jonathan Croall on the pocket-sized joint winner of the Senior Information Book Award

A change of venue, a different time of year and a new category - The TES Awards return this week after an absence of two years. Five pages of features and judges' reports follow on the Information Book Awards, the Schoolbook Awards and, for the first time, the Resources Awards for innovative mixed media packages. Winning publishers and authors were presented by Lord Henley with certificates and cheques for Pounds 500 yesterday at the Education Show in Birmingham

Andrew Phillips - who confesses to being in "a state of perpetual suppressed anger" at the blindness of the British chattering classes - has dreamed of the joint winner of The TES Senior Information Book Award for nearly 20 years. Young Citizen's Passport, published by Hodder and Stoughton, is born of his astonishment that society has done so little to combat young people's ignorance of the law. "The shining new laws pouring out of Westminster are so much bilge water to the public," says the founder and chairman of the Citizenship Foundation. "Our law-bound society remains a closed book to most young people - a perfect recipe for alienation and resentment. Yet nothing is done to bridge the gulf of ignorance between them and the legal system. It's ludicrous, the need is so stunningly obvious."

It was views like this that led him in 1989 to found the Citizenship Foundation, a charity which now runs a formidable range of participatory projects for young people, all designed to help them understand better the political, legal and social systems and the way a democracy works.

The foundation has powerful political support - Cherie Booth and Lord Holme are among the trustees; Tony Blair, Norman Fowler and David Steel are on its advisory council. Its projects include a youth parliament, a mock trial competition and a scheme for trainee solicitors to go into schools, as well as INSET on citizenship issues for teachers.

Young Citizen's Passport has emerged from Andrew Phillips' anger and is a book that young people have had a significant hand in shaping. The second edition, published since the judges' decision, has already sold more copies (22, 000) in six weeks than the first edition did in a year.

"We want to show young people that the law is not just something you come up against, but something you can participate in," says Hodder Stoughton's Mel Thompson. "There's a great need to provide them with a positive view of themselves."

This was a collaborative project from the start. Tony Thorpe, the book's editor and main author, enlisted the help of half a dozen lawyers, all of them under 25, in drafting most of the sections.

The aim was to avoid the inaccuracies found in some books about the law aimed at a young market.

He then tested the ideas out on more than 100 older teenagers in half a dozen schools - initially through a postal questionnaire, then by spending half a day with them all to get their reactions to the content and style of the draft material and, later, the first edition.

The young readers criticised his initial jocular style - "They thought it was patronising," he recalls. "I was told: 'you're in the middle of learning about the Sale of Goods Act, and suddenly there's a joke. You should keep it straight and simple.' So I did."

There were criticisms too of his treatment of "difficult" topics - such as drugs - on which the teenagers wanted more detail. "I think I chickened out first time round." So the second edition provides extra information about specific drugs, and makes full use of their street names.

But the later edition is less explicit about sex. "Some of the children you're addressing are below 16 and are using the book in school, so you have to be sensitive to the moral issue. I toned it down slightly."

Getting the balance right in the section on the police was a tricky task, since the youngsters' views were greatly coloured by their own experiences. But there's only been one letter of complaint so far - from a police officer in Cumbria.

The police, sex and drugs were just three of the topics raised during a lively, teacher-free discussion of the second edition by a group of 18-year-olds at Rossington High, an 1l to 18 comprehensive near Doncaster, and one of the original trial schools.

The group - four girls and five boys - generally found it helpful and easy to read and use. They liked its lively layout, handy pocket-sized format, and the colour and variety of the illustrations. They were also impressed that some of their earlier criticisms had been taken on board.

But there were still gaps to be filled. "It's good on Aids, but there should be more on other sexually-transmitted diseases," one boy said. "And on gays, to give them more moral support, because there's a lot of outcasts," a girl added.

The section on rights at work met with approval: although all the group were or would soon be in part-time jobs, many were unhappy with the casual way in which employers laid down their conditions. "We got a lot of forms, but nothing about our rights," one boy observed. "We were just told our wage, and that was it," said another.

Some had already put the book to practical use. "My sister has just turned 13, and is very interested in sex - like they are at that age," one girl said. "I decided it was time to give her a pep talk, so I showed her the book and the part on sex, and told her what she had to be aware of."

Information on sex and pregnancy is clearly needed in the Rossington area: one girl revealed that several girls in her year had left after becoming pregnant, while a boy in the year above said that several more had in his - "including one who's now having her third kid at 18."

The section on money was widely welcomed. "My mum and dad can't finance me at university," one girl said. "So I've had to start thinking about opening an account and finding out about overdrafts. The book's triggered that off. "

The school is in an overwhelmingly white area, so the youngsters saw little of relevance to them in the section on racial harassment. What did worry them was that they might be unconsciously racist themselves. "We don't know what words to use for the few Asian pupils here," confessed one.

Despite giving the seal of approval to the book and its aims, none said they would buy a copy - even at a modest Pounds 2.99. This suggests the publishers have been canny in offering discounts on bulk orders by schools and other bodies, bringing the price down as low as 99p. Some police forces are also now ordering substantial quantities.

Producing a full-colour, heavily-illustrated book at Pounds 2.99 would be impossible without subsidy. Kingfisher and BT coughed up Pounds 10,000 each for the first edition, which helped to cover writing and production costs, and enabled the Citizenship Foundation to deliver complete film to the publishers.

The concept of the book is not entirely new. In the l980s a similar text was produced for schools in Wales and for the past 10 years Scotrail has produced a similar guide for young people, though it's targeted more at those about to go to college.

Mark Williamson, a local education authority adviser and one of the award judges, believes Young Citizen's Passport could be of considerable use for schools "struggling with citizenship", but also be of relevance to the youth service. "Young people often raise issues like this in informal situations like youth clubs." He also suggests schools could fruitfully give a copy to all their 14-year-olds.

Whatever happens, the book seems set to become an annual publication. It's also gathering more allies: for the next edition the Citizen's Charter Unit is providing funding for additional trials.

"The testing will be more scientific this time, we'll do it in more depth, " Andrew Phillips says. "We need to make it just as good as it can be. After all, knowing about the law is a bit like cleaning your teeth - only rather more important."

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