Class Action: Exploring issues facing London’s students

Wednesday morning, 10.30am: the unmistakeable bee-hive shrieks from the playground reach my ears even before I turn the corner. As I enter the gates and cross the tarmac to a school in North Westminster, I weave through animated games of tag, clapping, the odd near-fight averted by supervising teaching assistants in fluorescent jackets, and rushed but friendly cries of “Hello Rachel!” as I’m spotted by some of the 56 students  I’m working with this term.

This primary school is the site of my newest ‘In My Back Yard’ project. Last year, I ran the project here with a group of 11 wonderful children as an after-school club. This year I’m piloting it with the entire year 5 students, who are between nine and ten years old. Will it work? Will they all engage? Can we get two whole classes to empower other young people to take action on local community issues?

Three weeks into the project, my main feeling as I climb the steps to the school door is of delight and excitement – the kids so far have been a joy to work with, and this really is one of the highlights of my week.

In the classroom, the children are full of amazing ideas, and find it very difficult to contain them while they put their hands up. Concealing my amusement,  the teachers and I repeatedly urge them to put their hands up so we can hear everyone’s ideas!

Imaginary characters

During my first week, we talked about children’s rights. The second week we created a story about an imaginary character who represents the class, and whose imaginary life is a sort of “average” of the class’s experiences. Class 5B created ‘Fran’: she has 5 siblings (the children’s actual sibling numbers ranged from two to eight, with most having four or five); her fictional dad is a security guard (this was felt to be the most popular and representative choice out of chef, builder, roofer, teacher, defending solicitor, millionaire…); her mum is a childminder currently looking after a newborn baby brother, with the help of a fictional auntie, who doesn’t speak much English as she’s visiting from her own country.

Class 5R created ‘Dan’: he has five siblings, ranging from 7 to 18 years old; a busy dad working as a chef; busy mum looking after the kids; older siblings helping out by taking the younger ones to school; a big family sharing a 3 bedroom house.

Picture of Dan, one of the fictional characters meant to represent all the students in the class

There are clear themes emerging already, after only two workshops. North Westminster is notorious for overcrowded housing, and, as in so much of London, for the very high levels of income poverty of the children who live on this estate. Mirroring the overall London figure, of 44% of children living in income poverty, in this particular ward nearly 50% of the children alone are living in families on out-of-work benefits. I have been briefed on each child’s background and know of many more whose parents do work, but in low-paid, long-hour jobs.

One of the children, while I was working in the same school last year, told me pragmatically — as an aside to another conversation — that unfortunately she wouldn’t be able to finish off the poster we were making in the group, at home, because they didn’t have any colouring pens or pencils. I happen to know she has several siblings, all of primary school age or younger. I made sure we worked in a ‘prize’ the following week for one of the activities, of a pack of colouring pens for each child in the group. They were delighted. Yet these children live barely a couple of miles from the wedding cake houses of Belgravia, the smart streets of St John’s Wood. This is London.

At nine, they have a good grasp of social policy analysis

When I ask the children this week how they think we might help their imaginary character with their overcrowded house, they explain to me that the parents could decide to move, but… probably couldn’t, because it would be too expensive. They think the council might help but… probably wouldn’t, because there is not enough local housing. They think the government could step in to help the council but… probably wouldn’t, because there is a recession. It strikes me that at nine years old, they have a pretty good grasp of social policy analysis.

This week, we’re looking at the barriers in this fictional character’s life. We have narrowed it down to a couple of key issues. Overcrowded housing – the made-up ‘Fran’ shares her 3 bedroom flat with two sisters, two brothers, auntie and parents, while the made-up ‘Dan’, in the other class, shares his 3-bedroom house with four brothers, a sister and mum and dad. I ask in each group “Does that seem about right? Do we think that’s pretty normal, or would that be quite unusual?” I’m greeted with vocal assurances this is very much the situation for 80-90% of the children in the room.

The other issue that comes out strongly today is the high cost of utility bills for parents. One little boy suggests “you could have a campaign and write to the gas company and ask them to make it cheaper!”

It’s tremendously exciting to be carrying out this project with such a large group. If it’s successful, the school will run the project with all the year five students each year, and we may even be able to support other schools to take this on.

In the meantime, the children are giving us invaluable insights into their daily lives and the barriers which affect children where they live. One little boy tells us earnestly why our imaginary character feels so angry and frustrated when he gets home after being in a fight at school, and might just want some peace and quiet, but can’t get any space at home because he lives in such a small house with so many people in it. “Maybe he takes it out on his mum” says this little boy, “even though it’s not her fault.” “I liked discussing all the issues in a big group” says another child at the end of the session. “I liked how everyone got to say their ideas”.

After an hour in each class room, I leave each group with their class teachers. They’re working out how to design a survey they will carry out this week with grown-ups in their local area about the two big issues they’ve identified.

Find out more about In My Backyard.

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