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Early lessons in governing;Arts

Primary children have been getting down to the grassroots of running a community. Brian Hayward reports

James Brining, the TAG theatre company's supremo, had every reason to be delighted. Getting schools into the main chamber of the Scottish Parliament was an astonishing coup for TAG, and a measure of the "fantastic" support for its three-year "Making the Nation" arts education programme.

"The children were right there, in the main chamber, sitting in the seats and pressing the voting buttons," enthused Mr Brining. "It's the best possible demonstration of empowerment through drama." And so it was.

Inspired by the creation of the Parliament and a new political awareness, "Making the Nation" began last April and will end in October 2001, progressing in a sequence of plays and projects for schools and youth groups. This autumn it has been the turn of upper primary pupils.

Teachers and 600 children in 25 primary schools, mostly in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen but some as far north as Lossiemouth, have taken part in TAG's "A Sense of Community" programme. It was designed to help children explore issues of government and politics, partly through a study of their local community, and by enabling them to run their invented societies with their own legal, educational and financial managements. These goals meant that in the same week a class could have interviewed a local councillor about provision for young people and elected a president to their imaginary community.

TAG has been surprised by the imagination shown and the zeal with which the children have mapped their settlements. "Communities" have been created in Scotland, on Caribbean islands and on Mars. They have ranged from the extraordinarily chauvinistic and the religiously repressed to the community whose primary danger comes from the chocolate swamps that surround it.

Representatives of all the imaginary communities dreamed up by the 600 children met last weekend at Edinburgh, but they have been in touch with one another throughout the programme, using the Internet. A website designed by project manager Alice McGrath allows schools to publicise their invented communities, and lets TAG talk with schools and schools talk to one another.

A teacher's page updates information on a weekly basis. TAG's support for the teachers began in August with inservice training in drama techniques and Internet use, and the whole project has been based on a booklet provided by the company.

The 25 schools have also been visited by TAG's two drama workers, Louise Gallagher and Louise Brown. Drama has been important throughout the project, but role play has been the most significant medium for learning, with children taking on roles within their own communities, and engaging with other "communities".

This culminated last week in a three-day "Congress of Nations" in Edinburgh, to which each school "community" sent "ambassadors". The highlight was meeting in the main chamber of the Scottish Parliament on Friday. Welcomed by the deputy presiding officer, Patricia Ferguson, they were addressed by party representatives and independent MSPs, including Dennis Canavan. After a debate and a tied vote, the "congress" finally decided that health, rather than recreation, should be Parliament's priority for young people - a choice typical of the seriousness shown by the pupils.

Later, the debate - chaired by Sir David Steel, the presiding officer - was interrupted with the news that an asteroid was heading for Earth and almost certain to destroy three "communities". Actors-in-role (a general, a politician and a gate-crashing activitist) helped to polarise a "congress" determined to persevere in the demanding role-play.

The pupils clearly learnt that democracy is hard work.

TAG, tel: 0141 552

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