'Rethink' role of children in society

25th July 1997 at 01:00
The charity Save the Children wants more priority given to young people's needs, reports Diane Spencer

There's an apocryphal story about a group of worthies sitting in a community centre discussing how to involve more young people when a brick smashes through the window.

The young people already involved were annoyed that they had not been invited by the grown-ups, who had taken over their time and space.

This adult attitude is echoed in a report just published by the charity, Save the Children, which calls for a fundamental rethink on the role of children in society.

The report, All Together Now, warns that even the Government's Welfare to Work policy could founder unless young people are consulted. Policy-makers who fail to consider the concerns and priorities of this large section of society do so at their peril, it says.

Pupils, for example, are not entitled to be involved in decisions about their education, the running of their schools, clubs or communities. They suffer disproportionately in their social lives from transport policies which rely on cars and from under-funded out-of-school activities.

Madeleine Tearse, the charity's policy adviser and the co-author of the report, said children should be involved in practical ways to improve community life in the country. They should learn what it means to have a stake in society. "It is time to rethink old-fashioned ideas about children being seen and not heard," she said.

The report also calls for co-ordination across government departments to give priority to children's needs. It says that children should be taught how to participate, and policy-makers must be sensitive to differences between children in terms of age, gender, ability, culture, religion, income and neighbourhood.

The authors said the report was edited last autumn, as public discussion about the role of children in society intensified. There were media reports of schools in crisis and children running out of control, culminating in the death of Philip Lawrence, the headteacher stabbed outside his school in north-west London. Punishment and education for citizenship were highlighted.

But the report says that children were often seen as needing either protection or control, not as people who could make a responsible, active contribution to society.

"What seems to be lacking is a sense of people of all ages working together across the community towards the future," it says.

The report gives examples of community projects which encourage young people to take part. In Kirklees, primary-aged children helped to design their own play kitchen in an after-school club; in West Belfast, some 16-year-olds set up a research group to investigate the local drugs culture and produced a report on their findings which led to them taking part in conferences and workshops.

In Oxford, meanwhile, the Lifechance project involves two groups from different ethnic minorities who study their own history and traditions, and discuss the problems they face.

"We are calling for fundamental changes that could not be achieved overnight.This should not be an excuse for failure to act, nor should we be deterred because, at this stage, we do not have a blueprint of what a society transformed in this way would look like," concludes the report.

All Together Now, Save the Children Publications, 17 Grove Lane, London, SE5 8RD, Pounds 6.95 plus Pounds 1.05 pp.

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