Planet Justenuf becomes Notenuf when its computer breaks down. Then it's time for a micro society to come to the rescue. Harvey McGavin reports on an enterprising role-playing exercise for the under-11s
Paying taxes, running a business or going bankrupt are not normally things you have to worry about when you're 10 years old. But a group of under-11s in south London are getting to grips with the economic, political and social realities of society by inventing their own version - in miniature.
Micro society is a 12-week role-playing exercise that gives pupils the chance to set up a society run by themselves and for themselves. It was adapted from a scheme that has been running in California for 20 years , after an American employee of Westminster Education Business Partnership remembered it as one of the highlights of her school career.
A pilot was run in Westminster and Merton two years ago, mapped against the national curriculum and incorporating core skills such as communication, application of number, working with others and problem-solving.
The main problem to solve, as any economist will tell you, is scarcity of resources, and pupils are introduced to this concept by reading the story of the planet Justenuf. When the planet's all-powerful computer breaks down, its inhabitants find their plentiful existence has ended and society on the planet (now renamed Notenuf) has to start all over again.
Putting themselves in their position, the children have to decide how to make a living. Then, once business plans have been drawn up and currencies named and designed, trading begins.
As the story continues and their micro society flourishes, pupils are introduced to concepts like profit and loss, supply and demand, inflation and taxation.
"One of the most important things about this project is that the pupils own the society and run it," says Gillian Morris, chief executive of Merton EBP, which trains teachers to run the programme and arranges for visiting speakers, such as bank managers and local politicians, to come into schools.
At Wimbledon Chase Middle School, Year 5's junior enterprises enjoyed varying fortunes. The five classes taking part traded with each other, exchanging goods for a currency called splodgies and fizzdazzes, although, just as in the real post-industrial society, services seemed to fare best.
"There is always a huge range of businesses," says Gillian Morris. "You always tend to see the manufacturing sector struggling and the service sector booming."
Rachel and Millie's concert promotion hit a snag when their Spice Girls tape was gobbled up by the machine and irate fans sued them. Luckily, Johanna the policewoman was on hand to keep the peace. Meanwhile, Graham ("I'm a bit of a whizz at maths") was raking the money in with his casino, and Fauz was cashing in on the scratchcard craze with his own brand of instant gambling. A junior version of Blind Date proved popular, as did the sweetshop and a portrait drawing service (two splodgies for black and white, four for colour).
But in among the fun and games many valuable lessons were learned and the children's own assessment of the programme revealed some telling insights into the ways of the world.
"Primary children are prone to want to do things with their friends," observed Gillian Morris. "We try to do as much as we can to make them think about the qualities you need to do a particular job." The programme includes a talk from a personnel manager about the need to select staff according to their abilities. Even so, some of the children learned the hard way that business and friendship don't always mix.
When Suzy was looking to employ an extra pair of hands in her gift shop, she interviewed one of her best friends. "She said she would work really hard and then she didn't and the police said they couldn't do anything about it. "
The harsh realities of life as an entrepreneur were recreated by the introduction of rent charges for desks and a tax system with import tax levied on people bringing in goods from home.
Tax collectors are never going to win a popularity contest, but, as Chrissie found, "It is hard to take tax off your best friend". And competition doesn't always bring out the best in people - one girl's rueful reflection was that "other people copy your ideas".
Others thought micro society "taught us how to co-operate with other people", "that money doesn't grow on trees" and even that "money isn't everything". All the participants agreed that it had given them an idea of what the world of work might be like, where the real decision, according to Millie, is "whether you want to have a real scam and a bad reputation but get lots of money or not".
At Hillcross Middle School in Morden deputy headteacher Brian Pook is introducing a Year 7 class to the role of banks and the police in a micro society. The class is a few weeks into the programme and had a flavour of what's to come when they played the "Shapes" game last week - trading paper, compasses, counters and rulers between groups to try to make as much "money" - in the form of circles and squares - as they can.
They are enthusiastic about the society ("you get to do things instead of write things down and you learn at the same time") and have plenty of money-making ideas, although Matthew's assumption that bank managers get to keep all the money is a bit wide of the mark. But he identifies the real intentions of the project - to give children an early experience of adult life - when he says: "It's like the real world only smaller."
Teachers interested in setting up a micro society in their school can contact Gillian Morris at Merton EBP on 0181 255 2431