The project that turns 12-year-olds into model citizens

31st October 2014 at 00:00
Finnish simulated city scheme aims to expand across Europe

For most 12-year-olds, job interviews, paying taxes and drawing up household budgets are a distant prospect.

But a prizewinning project that will be celebrated at an international education summit next week brings those concerns to life for children in Finland: thousands have already visited one of Me and MyCity's purpose-built miniature towns to experience a day in the adult world.

The initiative is one of six winners of the annual World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) Awards. Each of the projects receives $20,000 (pound;12,400) and they will be honoured at the Wise Summit in Qatar on 4-6 November, where the winner of this year's $500,000 Wise Prize for Education will also be announced.

The executive director of Me and MyCity, Tomi Alakoski, is also hoping to pitch the idea to the leaders of several European countries - including British prime minister David Cameron - when they visit Helsinki for a conference soon after the summit.

Founded in 2010, Me and MyCity is expanding rapidly: more than 40,000 children will visit one of its eight sites around Finland this year.

Before the trip, the pupils decide which jobs to apply for. The vacancies are drawn up by more than 100 real-life firms, from technology companies and banks to chemists and shops. Students are then given a mock bank card, which their salary is loaded on to. After a day's work, they can choose to spend their earnings on goods such as jewellery, sweets or T-shirts.

"They are still 6th-graders, 12 years old, and it's the first time they can learn about what it's like to be an adult and to be a real worker, employer or citizen," Mr Alakoski said.

Not all the pupils get accepted for their first-choice job. The project is designed to prevent them from becoming victims of social exclusion and unemployment by giving them a taste of what life is like beyond the classroom.

"We wanted to find a way to bring entrepreneurship into schools in a concrete and motivating manner," Mr Alakoski said. "We haven't had much of this kind of thing in the younger classes. It's very important we start early. The kids are so excited. It's amazing what they have learned."

A similar project, KidZania, is currently being built at the Westfield shopping mall in West London. The buildings and vehicles in the role-playing theme park will be two-thirds normal size. Facilities include an airport, hospital, police station and sports stadium, and the miniature city will even have its own newspaper, passports and currency. Other KidZanias have already been set up around the world in cities such as Cairo, Mumbai and Tokyo.

But Me and MyCity is designed with employment and education in mind, rather than recreation.

"We want to open children's eyes to what kind of employers they have in their area," Mr Alakoski said. "It's important they start to realise what society is like and how it functions."

Other winners of the Wise Awards this year include a scheme for educating street children in Egypt; a Jordan-based programme to train women in encouraging reading for pleasure; and an Australian project designed to improve attainment among underprivileged children through arts and music.

The Wise Summit, founded by the Qatari government's Qatar Foundation, takes place in Doha. This year's conference will discuss the theme of creativity in education, and speakers are expected to include former British prime minister Gordon Brown and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America.

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