A lesson in citizenship led to teenagers investigating local issues such as crime, rats and educational underachievement. Michael Shaw reports
A CITIZENSHIP project by pupils has spiralled into a public inquiry into drug crime, rats and educational underachievement which blight a Birmingham community. Teenagers in Saltley have been grilling police and education officials as part of a six-month investigation into the inner-city area's problems.
The inquiry will reach its climax next month when the young people publish a report containing a series of hard-hitting recommendations. Campaigning by the teenagers has already helped close a social club which residents claimed was used by drug-dealers selling heroin and crack cocaine.
It has also led to closer co-operation between police and the Asian community after members of the inquiry offered to go door-to-door with police, introducing them to the locals.
The Saltley inquiry is being run by the Young Citizens group which aims to give Birmingham teenagers greater political sway.
Faraz Yousufzai, Young Citizens co-ordinator, started the inquiry in workshops last year with 15-year-old pupils at Park View school.
The students were asked to find out what problems affected their community and interviewed nearly 200 local residents.
They then worked with Mr Yousufzai on setting up committees to look at the three main areas of worry: drugs and crime, educational underachievement and rats.
Mr Yousufzai said that the new year shootings of two teenage girls in Aston, less than 10 minutes drive from Saltley, had underlined the inquiry's significance. "The young people say that gun-related incidents are happening here more and more often, so the work they are doing getting the community to talk with the police is very important," he said.
Many residents also expressed worries about the area's booming rat population, which has been feeding off piles of illegally-dumped rubbish.
The inquiry team plans to hit back in local media by naming and shaming companies which do not have a trade refuse licence.
Park View headteacher Lindsey Clark feared the inquiry was "high risk" because it would challenge the local authority.
But she said her predominantly Muslim pupils would understand their powers as citizens better if they took real action. And dozens of other under-25s from Saltley as well as a handful of teachers have joined the inquiry since last summer. School-age students now make up about 40 of the 100-strong team.
But while the public committees take place mainly in the evenings, officials continue to be quizzed in citizenship lessons at Park View and two other secondaries.
The final report is expected to be critical of the city's education system and to recommend that schools do more to ensure that their curricula and governing bodies reflect the ethnic mix of their pupils.
Birmingham's chief education officer Tony Howell has agreed to take the inquiry recommendations seriously, and will distribute copies to all the city's schools.