A child's guide to the way we live now: Young film-makers examine Britain

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The Independent Online
STEPHEN HERON was only four when his parents divorced. At the time, they decided not to tell him about their long-term split because they thought he was too young to understand.

Stephen's mother told him his father was away with the Army. Now, seven years later, Stephen's father admits - in a video produced by Stephen and two friends - that he could have been more honest: 'With hindsight, I should have sat down and spoken to Stephen and told him exactly what was happening and why.'

The five-minute video will be shown as part of a Channel 4 documentary later this month. The programme includes 13 other video investigations by 25 children around the country into subjects ranging from racism to homelessness and disabled people's rights. A report into the state of the nation through the eyes of children, with recommendations for the Government, is the culmination of this work, and will be handed in to the Prime Minister today.

Pia Kahn, 16, and Kirsty Barber and David Donald, both 15, were chosen by audition to present Child's Eye and wrote the final report after spending two weeks travelling around the country, meeting the young film-makers and listening to their views. They also interviewed adults, asking questions raised by their investigations.

Among the report's strongest recommendations are those on divorce. It suggests that children should have a legal right to be told that their parents are separating for good, but should not be exposed to the official summons which can contain upsetting details about the reasons.

'The people whose lives are most affected during a divorce are the ones who are most often ignored,' said Pia. 'The child should be the first to know. If parents aren't prepared to give them that right then the Government should. But the child shouldn't have to hear that his father thinks his mother is sexually incompetent. The summons can be an extremely disturbing read for young people.'

Adair Richards and Jonathan Rawlings, both aged 12 and from Cardiff, made a film about the National Curriculum, 'because it affects children everywhere all the time'. They say that schoolchildren know little about it, but they were not surprised since it has changed so frequently and is written in a jargon-laden, almost incomprehensible style.

They recommend that children be consulted about their education. 'The Government should bring out a consultation document for children, supply an address or phone number for our views and ask children what they think,' said Adair.

One of the trickiest issues to tackle was unemployment, as three girls in Glasgow with bleak job prospects found out when they made a film and tried to find solutions.

'Everyone wanted to learn about unemployment and the social security system but none of them was taught about it,' said David. 'It is regarded as too pessimistic a subject to discuss. But people need to know that they might not get a job when they leave school and should be taught how to cope.'

Vicky Van-Emmerik, 11, lives in a caravan near Taunton and decided to make a film about travellers' rights. Her parents had applied for permission to stay on their present site, as the Government is now encouraging travellers to do. But their application had been turned down by the local authority and they were forced to move when Vicky would have liked to attend the local secondary school.

'Travellers are being given mixed messages,' said Kirsty, who spent 24 hours with Vicky on her camp site. 'The Government wants them to stop moving and apply for planning permission but the local authorities won't grant it. Where are they supposed to go?' The report will recommend that safe sites are set up around the country where travellers would be able to stay if they wished their children to have uninterrupted schooling.

Miriam Demilew made a video about disabled access, using a camera attached to her wheelchair. Trains, buses, shops and cinemas all proved an enormous challenge for her. 'Accommodating disabled people shouldn't be a choice,' said Pia. 'We recommend that buildings and public transport should all be designed so they are accessible to everyone.'

Kirsty was shocked by the number of young people living on the streets in Manchester. 'These were children as young as 12,' she said. 'After visiting hostels and talking to people, we've decided to recommend that safe houses are set up, where four or five young people can live together independently but securely, with a young warden in the house.'

The video made by Montaz Hossain on racism in Greenwich proved one of the most controversial. Pia and Kirsty went with her to interview a British National Party spokesman but David refused. 'I don't think they should be given a platform for their filth,' he said. The interview was eventually used for research but will not be shown on television. Pia felt freedom of speech was crucial, but David wanted the Government to ban the BNP 'because they are breaking the Race Relations Act'.

Other topics explored included bullying, sex education, the troubles in Belfast and the effect of radiation in Sellafield. What general impressions of Britain were the trio left with?

David was the most pessmistic: 'It really is a mess.' Although Kirsty agreed, she said: 'We did see some hopeful things - such as the young people in hostels making the most of their lives.' Pia, who has lived in Pakistan and India as well as Britain, was the most optimistic. 'On the whole I like Britain,' she said. 'Britain is one of the most caring countries in the world.

'Disabled people in India have stones thrown at them. I'm not saying enough is done here, but it's better than a lot of other places. There is still free medical care. The biggest problem is prejudice. Everyone has prejudices, it's fear of the unknown. I was a bit scared of staying on the travellers' site but now I realise that was silly.

'People in power should be made to confront their prejudices. Until then things won't change.'

(Photograph omitted)

'Child's Eye' will be shown on 25 September.