A pupil campaign that took to the streets has put gun crime on the school curriculum. Nic Barnard reports
It was only when people started cheering in the streets and joining her pupils' anti-gun march that Juliet Coley realised how successful it had been. The Tottenham teacher admits to being nervous when nine pupils at Gladesmore Community School chose fighting the gun crime blighting inner-city black communities as the campaign for their out-of-school project.
However, her reaction changed when she saw the public response. "I was kicking myself," she says. "We should have gone the whole hog. After that, I decided we'd put gun crime into the curriculum and do it properly."
Around 150 people marched from the school to a rally at the local peace centre. The event was the centrepiece of the Value Life campaign, run by students from the north London school under a Citizenship Foundation programme called Youth Act! The programme aims to give young people the confidence to shape their communities by offering the necessary training and support to tackle a specific problem of their choosing.
Groups of up to 20 young people from schools, youth clubs or other community organisations attend free weekly sessions and a residential weekend in Cheshire, to receive training and develop their campaigns.
Results so far, from four inner London boroughs, have been promising enough for the foundation to seek funding to roll it out across the country.
Groups have tackled issues from mobile phone theft to school dinners, with varying degrees of success.
Gladesmore's campaign made local headlines and has become the start of something much bigger. Gun crime now forms a separate module in the school's citizenship curriculum; the campaign is flagged up in posters around the school hall; and it has won national awards. And in June there will be a bigger march, ending in Tottenham Hotspur's VIP suite at White Hart Lane.
The first march was supported by two families who had been victims of gun crime. The campaign has now broadened to include knife crime and, next month, pupils hope to be joined by Damilola Taylor's parents and Lucy Cope, of Mothers Against Guns, whose son was shot dead.
Juliet and her students would like the march to become an annual borough-wide event. "The first one went well, but it's a shame it wasn't even bigger," says Jeffrey, 16, one of the Value Life team. "It's a school initiative now, so some of us are going to go to other schools to tell them about it."
At a time when Ofsted considers citizenship one of the worst taught subjects in the curriculum, Gladesmore wins praise from inspectors.
Citizenship is taught separately, not embedded in other subjects. It permeates school life, from the powerful school council down.
Juliet, the school's citizenship co-ordinator, takes the view that lessons in the subject should "reflect the area the children come from". She leapt at the chance to get involved in a project outside the school gates. "I was excited when they came back to the school with their topic, but nervous at the same time," she says. "You want to tread carefully - you want to guide them, but you also want them to have their own voice."
Youth Act! was brought to London by Citizenship Foundation's project manager Carrie Supple, who came across it during a trip to Washington DC.
"I liked the model of young people working with adults, and it fits the whole theme of active citizenship, community involvement and political education," she says. "There are lots of youth projects aimed at community improvement, but there's something quite accessible about this idea of weekly training sessions and a residential weekend where groups get to meet each other. It's a good mix of serious learning about campaigning and being sociable."
The training, provided mostly by youth workers, covers key skills such as problem-solving and teamwork, as well as campaigning skills, including how to run a campaign, influence decision-makers, use the media and raise funds.
Youth Act! also aims to tackle social exclusion, and has targeted inner-city youth. Gladesmore serves some of London's poorest communities, and pupils say the area feels dangerous at night. "It used to be nicer years ago - we're trying to help change it back," says Yasemin, 15, another member of the team.
Few of the pupils have direct experience of gun crime, but they know about it from the papers and television. Jeffrey talks of coming up against police tape just minutes after a shooting in the area last year. There is even talk of introducing airport-style metal detectors at school entrances.
Bianca, 13, says: "It's a big issue. There's always something in the local paper about gun crime. People see guns as cool - we're trying to change their mentality about that."
She adds: "It's quite hard to change older people's views, but if you can change children's views, maybe the future will be much better."
Juliet introduced them to the Haringey Peace Alliance, and through them to Haringey police. The students grabbed the opportunity, collaring senior officers to explain their ideas. The police were so impressed they offered funds for the march.
The group garnered more support with letter-writing campaigns and leafleting at the Tottenham carnival. Their enthusiasm masked their own fears that they might be putting themselves - literally - in the firing line.
Value Life is not the only successful campaign. Boys the from Stonebridge Road estate - some of whom also go to Gladesmore - last year won the Philip Lawrence award for their campaign to improve facilities on their estate.
An independent evaluation of the scheme talks of the boost in confidence among pupils, and improvements in knowledge and skills, which add to employability as well as the students' ability to engage in local politics.
The scheme has been good at drawing in "hard to reach" young people from socially-deprived communities, who were often likely to motivate their peers. However, evaluators noted that the most successful projects were the ones where adults had been able to give the most time and support.
Certainly, students at Gladesmore speak highly of the training they received - not least the lessons on talking to people in power ("Be persuasive, don't keep your head down, use proper vocabulary, maintain eye contact," says Yasemin). And there's no doubting the pride and confidence it has given them. "I helped start something." says Jeffrey.
* For more details about Youth Act! Email: email@example.com