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Schools: From truants to voters

"There is not so much fighting and jumping around anymore. I like being in class more because we get to go outside and we get to make the school better. I liked what we did today and I think I am learning what it means to be a good citizen."

Antonio is talking about a new citizenship course that has been running at his school, Battersea Technology College in Wandsworth, south London for nine weeks.

The school is on a bleak estate and many of its pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was one of the first schools to be failed by school inspectors but is now making steady progress under its head, Andrew Poole.

A group of 23 children aged 11-12, chosen because they had some difficulties with school, are working on ways of improving their school environment under the leadership of Francine Britton from the Institute of Service Learning in the US.

Ms Britton, who has been brought to Battersea with the support of Community Service Volunteers and a grant from the Peabody Trust, exudes enthusiasm. Nine weeks ago, she says, students were playing truant from the sessions. Now they all turn up for the weekly sessions and some even want to stay on into break.

Ms Britton explains how she has woven together the strands that make up the pilot programme. One of her first steps was to persuade pupils to run their own affairs. "We decided we would run the class as a democracy. We would make decisions as a group and once the decisions were made we would start doing some action plans."

As Lisa says: "I like voting as a class because it gives us a chance to talk about things. We are a good class sometimes."Another lesson involved working with encouraging words about others. They had to say Good work! You did it! Brilliant! Fantastic job! to each other before organising the words in a display for the wall and using them in poems and prose. The aim is to improve both team work and self-esteem.

All this prepared them for action to improve the school's environment. They divided themselves into three teams: the anti-litter team, the media group and the environmental worriers. Between them, they have produced anti-litter posters, brought out a newsletter, designed a better playground and agreed to spend pounds 500 on litter bins, picnic tables and colourful plants. There is to be an anti-litter day and an anti-litter assembly.

Now they are deciding how to turn a pond and an abandoned corner of the playground into an ecology garden. When Ms Britton asks them which subjects could use the new garden, the ideas come tumbling out. "English could do a play." "History could dig." "Science could test the water."

Mr Poole intends that citizenship will be a permanent part of the curriculum by the year 2002. "Schools have to take an increasing responsibility for preparing young people for decision-making. The course is helping them learn about relationships, sensitive listening and taking part, and to be sensitive towards the environment."