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Devolution's dazzler

The spectacular new home of the Scottish Parliament is a rare sight to behold, and spending a few hours there can help to bring politics to life for your pupils. Morag Fleming reports

As senior pupils from Braes High School in Falkirk walk through the foyer of the new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, in Edinburgh, they survey it with a curious and critical eye. And no wonder - there has been much talk about this building, and about the whole idea of a Scottish parliament.

Since 1707, when Scotland was united with England, the idea of resurrecting a parliament for Scotland in Edinburgh has been controversial. Through years of debate, campaigns, a referendum, and temporary accommodation, Scotland waited and counted the soaring cost until the parliament's permanent home was finally opened on October 9 2004.

This building is amazing. It is a collection of geometric shapes - some abstracted variations of the figure in Raeburn's much-loved canvas, The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, others more reminiscent of upturned boats. Bamboo on the windows gives it an exotic feel. Inside, there is an abundance of light wood and concrete, about which Braes' school captain Alastair Findley, 17, is undecided.

"I'm not sure about the bare walls," he says. "It looks like it's not finished. I live on a farm and it looks a bit like one of our barns. It's hard to see where all that money went."

But Stephanie O'Dea, 15, is much more enthusiastic. "It's completely different from the parliament in London," she says. "It just says '21st century' - totally new and classy."

Pupils can go on architectural tours of the building and look at it in purely aesthetic terms, but these pupils have come as part of their modern studies course in which they are learning about how government works.

Mary Hershaw has been part of the Scottish Parliament's education team since 2002.

"The service is constantly evolving and we try to offer a variety of activities for schools," she says. "We have quizzes and debates and a Question Time-type event. We also run teachers' seminars and can work with pupil councils and on citizenship issues. We're very flexible."

Visits can be tailor-made. This group - preparing for Standard Grades and Highers - take part in a Millionaire-style quiz on the workings of the parliament.

Michael Matheson, a regional MP for Falkirk, is here to talk to the pupils and answer questions. The MSPs are very supportive and visit whenever possible. But some hardened cynics among the pupils comment that they would also like to see the MSPs visiting them in school.

So the controversy continues en route to the parliament's debating chamber.

On the way up the stairs, pupils are intrigued about what they might see.

Fifteen-year-old David Guthrie says: "I want to see how it compares to what I've seen on TV. They seem to be always arguing. I want to see if that's what it's really like."

The chamber is bright and very modern. The seats are set out in a horseshoe rather than the battle lines of Westminster, which are two sword-lengths apart. Mary Hershaw tells us that this is to foster more consensual debate.

Pamela Jackson, an S4 pupil, is considering which seat she would like to sit in when she fulfils her ambition to become a member of the parliament herself.

Suddenly, it all kicks off with a debate on proposed changes to the health service. What happens in the chamber on the day of your visit is very much the luck of the draw, unless you are fortunate enough to come to First Minister's Questions. But this is a good day.

Almost instantly, MSPs are vying for centre stage, shouting each other down, banging on their desks and arguing the toss. The students turn round to look at their teacher with a mixture of disapproval, amazement and (could that be?) utter glee on their faces. "This is quite exciting," whispers Alastair.

All too soon, the debate comes to an end, it's time to get the bus, and pupils realise that their two hours have gone in a flash.

"The visit has been nicely paced," says Mrs McLaran, the modern studies teacher. "It's better to show them what we are teaching them rather than endlessly talking about it.

"The students relate more to politics if they can see that it's real. All in all, it's been a very useful afternoon."

And there seems to be no controversy on that point.

For details contact the Scottish Parliament education service: tel 0131 348 5404;

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