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Girls press their right to speak up

Former MSP Dorothy-Grace Elder, who served on the Public Petitions Committee, urges schools to take their woes to the Scottish Parliament

Don't just sit there moaning about educational problems, cutbacks or any issue you feel is unjust. Complain in the right direction: go straight to the Scottish Parliament.

Public petitioning is not just a show of democracy; it has proved to be a real success. And there is no age barrier. It provides a great chance for pupils to air their issues and for modern studies departments to conduct a real-life exercise in democracy.

It's free, it's easy, only one signature is needed for a petition and most are heard. The Public Petitions Committee can push an issue forward that could eventually lead to changes in the law.

Three 14-year-olds from St Columba's High in Dunfermline, last week showed that petitioning Edinburgh is a good experience, even a happy one. The committee of seven MSPs were delighted to see young people for a change and Sarah Ver, Kerry Feeney and Raylene Ford got a result.

The girls, infuriated by minor sentences for child molesters, want reform of sentencing policy. The committee MSPs, after hearing lead petitioner Sarah, agreed to ask the Sentencing Commission to study the views of young people.

Michael McMahon, the committee's convener and MSP for Hamilton North and Bellshill, said afterwards: "Sarah spoke up and, frankly, she could outshine some people many times her age.

"She pointed out that young people are often the victims of crime but we hear more about youth being involved in crime.

"The three St Columba's pupils were a fine example to others and I would encourage other pupils to petition us on their concerns."

While the girls had thought that addressing parliamentarians would be "really scary", Sarah said the MSPs were very friendly and made them feel welcome.

Modern studies teacher Keith Thomas accompanied them. He said: "The school is proud of them. It's a simple system that more modern studies departments should think about."

Very different issues affecting education could be tackled, for example, shortages of teachers, threats to playing fields, student poverty, school meals, or college and university problems. It is the way you word the petition that counts and sometimes the timing.

One of the smallest villages in Scotland, Blairingone in Kinross, eventually succeeded in getting the law changed last April, to ban the spreading of raw sewage on farmland. Blairingone, with just 220 inhabitants, won on an important national issue, helped by their petition to Parliament.

The Public Petitions Committee is the only parliamentary committee to win an award for public service in the Scottish Politician of the Year awards.

Party politics do not count.

Scotland borrowed the petitioning idea from the European Parliament. In fact, I have taken a petition to Brussels, privately, found the system to be just as easy as here, and won the European Parliament's backing for a Glasgow pollution case.

Westminster still does not have a petitions committee: petitions are dumped in a bag behind the Speaker's chair and few are ever heard of again.

Clerk to the Public Petitions Committee, tel 0131 348 5186 HOW TO PETITION

* Set your local issue in a national, Scottish context.

* The Scottish Parliament cannot overturn executive decisions of other public bodies in Scotland, such as planning approval or school closures, but if you petition before decisions are taken, that can make a difference.

* The lead petitioner can address the Public Petitions Committee for a few minutes but the MSPs often let people go on.

* Electronic petitions are not handled pro forma just now, but there is an open forum on the Parliament's website for discussing petition ideas.

* Too far from Edinburgh? On a few occasions, a video link has been set up.

Shetlanders have addressed the committee remotely but successfully.

* Petitioners do not need to appear in person but it is wise to consult a local MSP and get him or her to be present.

* Excellent guidance is available from the clerk to the Public Petitions Committee

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