In the hot seats of the democratic process

It has almost doubled its programme since last year, its visitor numbers have trebled and its headline acts include some big names. Yet few people have heard of the Festival of Politics.

The four-day event at the Edinburgh Festival included talks on the Middle East, Europe, economics, democracy, terrorism, devolution, the media, freedom of information, culture, climate change, peace and homelessness, as well as how to engage young people in politics. With its growing range of activities for primary and secondary schools, this is one festival teachers might want to pencil into their diaries for next year.

The Scottish Parliament's education centre was set out as a debating chamber for the key secondary schools discussion on "How Should the Parliament Spend Scotland's Money?" The event targeted pupils with an interest in politics or current affairs, modern studies students, debating societies and members of pupil councils.

Thirty-four S3-S6 pupils from Uddingston Grammar in South Lanarkshire, Monifieth High in Angus, Dalziel High in Motherwell and Castlemilk High mulled over issues as Charlie Gordon, MSP for Glasgow Cathcart (Castlemilk's constituency), acted as presiding officer. Five Bills were on the agenda: national parks, free school meals, anti-social behaviour, abolition of prescription charges and a Borders to Edinburgh rail link.

The 14- to 17-year-olds, divided into six teams, were given packs about each Bill, including main arguments for and against and projected costs.

These were real arguments put forward by MSPs, the public and organisations when the actual Bills were debated.

Some pupils would propose a Bill, giving their arguments in one minute, then others from opposing parties could request to speak, giving their arguments for or against. Two taps of the gavel meant a speaker's time was almost up. The proposing team could make a reply speech if they wished. At the end, the assembled company voted to determine which Bills should become Acts of Parliament. With a limited budget, they had to make tough decisions.

First up was a Bill to create two national parks: Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, and the Cairngorms. A girl from Castlemilk proposed it, saying it would boost tourism and culture. Others argued the money could be better spent and residents would suffer.

Free school meals were proposed on the grounds that they would lead to a healthier nation, tackle childhood obesity and end the stigma attached to free school meal tickets. An S5 pupil from Uddingston Grammar argued against, on the grounds that a majority of families could afford to provide lunch for their child.

The anti-social behaviour Bill provided further debate. "This problem needs to be eradicated," argued one pupil. "We need to stamp out this menace."

Safety for the majority of law-abiding citizens was a priority, said another, but someone made the point that violent thugs were a tiny minority.

Discussions on prescription charges and a Borders rail link raised points about vital revenue for the health service, tourism and economic benefits.

In the end, the pupils voted in favour of the rail link, free school meals for pupils and clamping down on anti-social behaviour. They voted against the abolition of prescription charges and designating two new national parks. (MSPs had favoured the parks but were against free school meals.) Michael McMahon, MSP for Hamilton North and Bellshill (Uddingston's constituency), found the session invaluable.

"We try to be innovative in the way that we engage young people in politics," he said. "I was not at all surprised that the anti-social behaviour Bill was the biggest debate and had clear support. Young people are the ones who feel most victimised by yob culture."

The Parliament's presiding officer, George Reid, said: "It is vital for a healthy democracy to involve and engage young people in the democratic process. And who knows, maybe some of our visitors might even return as MSPs."

Graeme Cunningham, an S5 pupil at Uddingston Grammar, is aiming higher.

"I'm going to be Prime Minister," he grinned.

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