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Improving urban environments: why children’s voices should be heard

The impact of involving children living in urban areas in decisions about their local community can be dramatic, according to new research from the Economic and Social Research Council. Empowering them can have positive effects on the children's academic and social development and contribute to improving school curricula.

These findings emerge from an innovative research project, led by Professor William Scott of the University of Bath. Professor Scott and his team worked with a group of 11 and 12 year olds in a secondary school in a deprived urban area of South Gloucestershire to explore, and ultimately improve their local environment.

The research project gave the children a leading role: not only did they help determine the focus of the research, they were also an integral part of the research team - designing the process, collecting and analysing data, drawing conclusions and suggesting changes.

The teachers involved in the research reported that the children ‘had had a massive boost to their self-esteem, with individuals growing in confidence’. They attributed this to the responsibility and trust children had been given saying that ‘what had been achieved was largely generated by the children themselves’.

The teachers were particularly impressed by

- the project’s impact on the children’s capacity to learn and enjoy learning,
- their new found ability to relate to people in different ways
- and the development of new skills, particularly in the imaginative use of IT.
The project also involved educationalists, local authority representatives and adult family members and the adult participants were reported to be enthused by the new insights they had gained into how to engage children, the new collaborative working relationships they had established and by the new ways of thinking about the curriculum. One of the teacher researchers described the project as ‘one of the best professional experiences in many years of teaching’.

The researchers found that urban children were very knowledgeable about their local community and were directly affected by such problems as air and noise pollution, traffic dangers and crime. They increasingly found themselves with nowhere to go and nothing to do, particularly around the age of 11 and 12 when they move from primary to secondary school and are start to move away from their home-centred, adult-controlled childhoods.

Professor Scott and his team noted that children’s ideas about the environment were rarely sought when planning decisions were made. Children did not know how to make their voices heard and believed that their schools should support them in getting their views across. Moreover, the researchers suggest that this lack of connection between children’s experience of school and their out-of-school lives contributes to their decline in academic progress and motivation experienced by many children in the early years of secondary school.

The project was highly successful in establishing ways for children to participate in planning decisions. The children produced a DVD and organised a Children’s Conference where all Year 7 pupils were able to participate and question a panel of school and local officials. As a result, the police community liaison officer and the local authority parks committee representative agreed to come into the school to listen to the children’s concerns. The work of the project continues in the school and is being extended to other local schools.

Annika Howard | alfa
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