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Title of case study: A conference for young people on childhood

Name: John Issitt,

University: University of York

Key Concepts/Threshold Concepts: I ran a sixth form one day conference at the University of York in 2005 on the theme of ‘Does education liberate anyone?’ and, given the success of the event, decided to run it again in 2006 on the theme ‘Is childhood getting shorter?’ The first and second conferences differed in that for latter event I arranged for a group of university undergraduates to manage and run the day as well as liase with, and visit, schools in preparation.

To briefly describe the 2006 event, six local schools sent between 6 and 25 students each. The day consisted of a programme of talks given by University lecturers on childhood in the morning, and a staged debate in the afternoon on the theme ‘Is childhood getting shorter?’ as the motion. I ran the debate in the style of the ‘Question Time’ programme. The event was a tremendous success – the feedback was excellent and we have commitments from schools want to be involved next year.

My motivation was that I wanted to celebrate the voices of young people. I wanted to hear what they thought about childhood and I wanted them to hear each other and their own voices.


This event involved undergraduates – who were between 18 and 21 – talking with sixth form students who were 16-19. The lack of a significant age gap helped to improve confidence all round and also helped the younger students see themselves as possible future university students.
• Under the University’s facilities for outreach, I was able to draw on University staff time and expertise in drawing together a group of undergraduates from across the campus – thus providing the administration team for the project.
• The group of students approached a number of local companies for sponsorship and were successful – eventually accumulating several hundred pounds and so covering the cost of the event.
• In the run up to the event the undergraduates went out to local schools and talked with the sixth formers and their teachers about the issues and how to present their arguments.
• Each school was asked to provide a number of speakers to address the issue.
• In initial communications to schools, I tried to find linkages between the A-level studies the sixth formers might be engaged in and the conference theme, which emphasised the practical relevance of the project. This varied, ranging across psychology – child development, sociology – children and society and English Literature – images and accounts of childhood. This helped to bring teachers on board.
• The timing of the event was critical, as it had to fit into busy school schedules and any time chosen would inevitably not suit everybody.
• The event was also seen as offering further exposure to university life.

Aims: • Everyone involved, sixth formers, undergraduates, lecturers, teachers and myself, agreed that the experience was an intrinsically worthwhile one. For the many students involved, speaking in a University setting and knowing that they had been heard was empowering.

• The group of undergraduates who organised the day, many of whom were considering teaching as a career, were able to use the experience in all sorts of ways, including applying for a York Award or on their CVs.

• The teachers were also able to make links with other schools, hear the contributions from students from other schools and were often moved to contribute as individuals rather than as ‘teachers’ at the event.

• The event provides a platform for further development and for more involvement and collaboration at all levels – for example Education Studies undergraduates may be able to use future conferences as mini research projects.

• The project can help to bridge the school/university divide – or at least demystify some elements of university life.

• The event was good local PR for the University.

• For me as a University lecturer, listening to the sixth formers was terrific. They are so bright and earnest! I was surprised at how clearly they saw through the nonsense of targets and hoop jumping of the National Curriculum. I was also surprised and heartened by the depth of their understanding and their analytic penetration. It really challenged my pessimistic and critical view of education. I also realised that many of the students who spoke to the conference were articulating ideas with real authority.

The debate

The debate ranged over sex education, childhood in other countries, teenage pregnancy, marketing to children, definitions of childhood, adult/child relations, meaning, the child in time, romantic discourses, the UNCRC and the African Charter, the participation/protection debate, the social construction of childhood, the medical model, gender relations and just about everything that I, as a lecturer in childhood studies, cover in undergraduate programmes.

I had to contain the debate from time to time so everyone could hear each other, but by and large everybody was very sensitive about ensuring all voices were heard. The motion was put and the final vote was that childhood was getting shorter but the conclusion of the debate, in one sense, did not really matter, in that it was the process of getting to that conclusion which was the most significant aspect of the event.

Issitt, J. ‘A Conference for Young People on Childhood’ in The MEDAL Casebook, MEDAL Consortium (2006)

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