Never Such Innocence (NSI), a charity first set up in 2014 as a First World War commemoration project for children and young people, had a presentation in Parliament on the 23rd of January. The event was held in a Houses of Parliament Committee room, full of children who had won prizes from NSI for the pieces of artwork and poetry. They were joined by their parents, workers at the Ministry of Defence (MOD), a few Members of Parliament, as well as the founder of NSI, Lady Lucy French.
The most notable attendees, aside from Lucy French, were the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Alicia Kearns, (who was standing in for Nickie Aiken), Dame Rachel De Souza, the Children’s Commissioner for England, an RAF liaison officer, Andrew Malcom, senior education officer at the MOD and Imam Asim Hafiz, Islamic Advisor at the MOD. These people, who no doubt had a lot to say on the impacts of conflicts worldwide, were there to listen to the children at whom NSI is directed.
NSI, although initially founded just as a First World War Commemoration, has expanded to all conflicts and has reached 121 countries worldwide. Their aim is to facilitate conversations on conflict among young people, nurturing the next generation of decision makers, working through workshops, special events and an international competition. The work is shared with their local peers, military and those in power, with each contributor receiving a commendation. The competitions all have a theme, trying to start conversations on conflict. The attendees at the event in Parliament this week had been asked the question, “what does war mean to you?”
The intensely moving display of the work by these children showed the necessity and benefit of facilitating these conversations as it offers an alternative and powerful perspective to conflict. As adults we are more focused on the recent agreement on sending tanks to Ukraine, asking why Germany did not send them sooner, rather than asking, as a child from St Peter’s Eaton Square C of E Primary School did, ‘why is this happening in 2023?’. The other poems from St Peter’s talked of finding peace in our differences, a message of shared humanity and weakness in the face of conflict, rather than stoking division. Soho Parish Primary School’s poems delivered thoughts of hope, and highlighted children’s want for world peace, one they think they deserve and that adults frequently forget. The winners, a choir from Nicholas Hammond Academy, recorded their song at a professional recording studio, a song that reminded me of “Sing”, recorded for the late Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But this song had a more poignant message, beautiful and haunting in one, remembering the 11th of November, and all the conflicts that followed. This presentation gave voice to those often forgotten children, who no one wants to think are impacted by conflicts. It also showed that even though we might not think children understand, their message on conflict is simpler than adults make it out to be, it is one of peace, understanding, fear and love.
The other winners at the presentation were military children, who are not routinely considered as a parent is deployed. A member of the education staff at MOD highlighted the significance of the Month of the Military Child when he said ‘children have been missed’ when coming up with support for talking about this experience, but the artwork submitted has helped both in supporting and an understanding that more support is needed. The poems talked of personal experience in moving, in isolation, constantly waiting for the military parent to return, but also a pride in that parent. A poignant poem was delivered by one of the boys, who was the man of the house whilst his father was serving, showing the need not only to facilitate conversations on conflict, but in offering support to those with family members who have not had a choice but are in the thick of it.
The vitality of the work done by Never Such Innocence is best communicated through the children themselves, and whilst I have tried to convey it, I cannot recreate the feelings behind each piece of art submitted. To me it was both hopeful and haunting, providing evidence that those younger than me are still fighting for what the world can be, rather than resigned to what it is. Yet tragic, as the childlike language seemed out of place on topics of such weight. The best I can do is shine a light on the conversations these children are having, and hope that we do not lose this ability to communicate so frankly on such a difficult topic as we grow. As Kofi Annan said, ‘you are never too young to lead, and we are never too old to learn.’