Today's cub reporters, tomorrow's newshounds

Angela Neustatter reports on a news agency staffed by enthusiastic children
Zumon Chowdhury,13, describing what he has gained from working with the Children's Express news agency, officially launched in Britain today, talks with a confidence and verve that was unheard of nine months ago.

"I interviewed the chief executive of the Football Association, Graham Kelly," he says. "We did the research in a group and thought of the questions together. Then we wrote up the article. My English in school has really improved and so has my reading. Each time I do an interview I become more sure of myself."

It is a view endorsed by Pip Scott, Media Resources Officer at Swanley School in the East End of London. Zumon is one of six pupils who, at her suggestion, joined 30 inner London children aged 8-18 on the news agency run by children and designed to reflect their view of the society they live in. Children's Express volunteers train as reporters and editors; they go out interviewing, hunting down stories and writing them up for publication. They choose the issues that interest them - so far these have included teenage pregnancy; an interview with Michael Newlands and the British National Party, for a look at racism; sex education, which included a debate with Kenneth Calman, Chief Medical Officer; and interviews with young offenders in a secure unit. The bureau chief, Cathryn Atkinson, briefs the children, edits their work and attempts to have it placed in national and local newspapers. Their stories have already appeared in the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday.

"Many of our children are from ethnic minorities and have little or no experience outside the immediate area," says Pip Scott. "They are so excited by what they are doing, and I have watched their confidence blossom and their school work improve enormously. They are learning to access information - a vital skill for children."

The idea orginated in the US, where Children's Express was founded in 1975, and which now has work published across the country. It has won Peabody and Emmy awards for reporting and been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Stephanie Williams, a journalist, decided Britain needed the scheme and raised funding first for a pilot project last summer and then to establish the scheme.

She was motivated by "the sight of so much wasted potential among children in this country. State schools do not have the resources to lay on out- of-school activities, which can offer kids the kind of challenge and learning experience we are doing. We have targeted schools in deprived areas. The enthusiasm we have seen and the feedback from teachers convinces me it is worth the effort. In time we would like to tie Children's Express in with the national curriculum."

So far there are 45 children working as teams after school and on Saturdays in term time, and all day during holidays. They have a waiting list of children eager to join.

It was 15-year-old Clency Lebrasse's teacher at St Aloysius' College in north London who suggested he should apply, and since last August he has been spending as much time as he can fit in around homework at the bureau. "I like doing sports stories most - I feel passionately about how football corruption affects kids and the problems they encounter when starting a football career," he says. "I spent a lot of time hanging out before I joined but now I'm learning something new every day and I'm getting better marks at school."

For Rachel Bulford, 14, who is at South Hampstead High School for Girls, Children's Express is a valuable way of building towards the career in journalism she wants. "I heard about it and applied," she says. "I've learnt a lot about how the press works, how to ask questions and to conduct myself. So far I've worked on a story exploring whether under-age people can buy lottery tickets."

Stephanie Williams and Cathryn Atkinson are determined to expand Children's Express nationwide, and they would like to recruit 140 children within the next year, but that depends on whether they can raise the necessary funding. Cathryn Atkinson says: "We hope people will donate because they see this as a valuable opportunity for children. I've become more impassioned over it because of the keenness I see. Children's Express is doing something very important in giving children a chance to give their perspective on daily events or to find stories that they consider significant. We would like to do things such as sending them to report a political party conference. The agency is also helping the children to feel they have a voice which deserves to be heard, and that, I believe, is a vital step towards becoming responsible citizens."