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On the political side of the law

Aspects of citizenship take on a sharp edge as school teams pit their wits in competitions, reports Raymond Ross

Citizenship is a winning subject for Belmont Academy in Ayr. The South Ayrshire school has scooped no fewer than four prizes in this year's National Youth Parliament Competition run by the Citizenship Foundation.

The competition aims to open up the processes of politics and government by offering 12- to 18-year-olds in the UK an opportunity to set up and video their own parliamentary session.

Teams, of at least 20 children in state or independent education or in a youth group, can model their parliament on either Westminster or, this year for the first time, Holyrood. About 30 Scottish schools took part this year and the Holyrood option counted for about half of the Scottish entries.

Belmont Academy was named best team in the Holyrood section and three of its S6 pupils won prizes for best opposition spokesperson (Lauren Barr), best backbench MSP (Colin Mitchell) and best minister (Jason Skimming).

The teams had to set up a mock chamber of the Scottish parliament and take on the roles of the Scottish Executive, opposition and backbench MSPs and make a 20-minute video of their parliamentary session. They had to include First Minister's Question Time and a debate on a mock Bill on a devolved issue of their choice.

The teams were judged by MSPs and political journalists.

Belmont Academy's team had 70 pupils from S1 to S6, who researched, scripted and filmed their video in County Hall, Ayr. All the work was done outside class time, mostly in lunch periods.

"The pupils came up with the ideas and topics," says modern studies teacher Carolyn Peacock who took charge of the project. "The role of the staff involved was advisory, giving guidance on proper procedures.

"We had a visit from Ayrshire MP George Foulkes and MSP Cathy Jamieson.

"We began the project in November and the enthusiasm has been terrific throughout.

"The competition gives the pupils a sense of how important it is to participate in decisions which affect their lives. It gives them experience in articulating their own views and taking on board other people's. And while it feeds into the modern studies syllabus, it was equally important that the project involved pupils who do not take modern studies," she says.

The mock Bill which the pupils debated was to ban smoking in public places. It was passed by a large majority.

Headteacher Alan Moir says of their success: "It's a tribute to all the hard work done by the pupils and the extra time the staff put in.

"Having won the Scottish section of the Westminster model three years in a row - in 2000, 2001 and 2002- and being placed third overall in Britain in 2002, our pupils have taken another step forward by becoming the first winners of the Holyrood model."

The runner-up team was Knox Academy in Haddington, East Lothian, whose senior pupil Sofie Rogers also picked up a special award for her closing speech. George Watson's College in Edinburgh picked up two awards, for best First Minister (Matthew McPherson) and for speaking persuasively and engaging with the issue (Louise Callum).

Prizes will be presented at a reception in the Scottish Parliament on June 17.

For further information on the National Youth Parliament Competition and the Bar National Mock Trial Competition, contact the Citizenship Foundation, tel 020 7367 pocket-sized guide to the law in Scotland, Young Citizen's Passport Scotland, produced by the Citizenship Foundation and published by Hodder Gibson, will be launched by the Minister for Social Justice, Cathy Jamieson, on June 8 * Next Friday (June 4) is the closing date for entries to another Citizenship Foundation competition, the Bar National Mock Trial, which aims to give 15- to 18-year-olds insight into the workings of the legal system.

In Scotland the competition is sponsored by the Faculty of Advocates and every team participating is allocated an advocate to help them prepare for the competition.

Teams of 14 students will use witness statements to prepare the prosecution and defence of two specially written cases. Pupils take on the roles of lawyers, witnesses, court staff and jurors and compete against other schools in a live format, with one team prosecuting and the other defending.

Schools will be notified of their place (or reserve place) by June 27.

Guides and cases will be sent out by the end of July. The Scottish regional heat will be held at Glasgow High Court in November and will involve 12 schools.

Kyle Academy won the 2003-04 Scottish heat, held at the Court of Session in Parliament House in Edinburgh, and went on to the national final at the Old Bailey.

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