Politicians in the firing line

Douglas Blane joins the audience at a special MSPs' Question Time for modern studies pupils in a Glasgow secondary

The live studio audience and previously unseen questions strike a little fear into the most fluent speakers on BBC1's Question Time. But the panel of politicians at Hyndland Secondary's own version of the programme look relaxed this morning as they take their seats in the corner of the Glasgow school's library to face a large audience of senior pupils.

If anything, modern studies teacher Laura Forrester seems more concerned about how well the next hour and a half will go: "It's the first time we've tried this. We had a fund-raising event with our local MP and the kids enjoyed that. So we decided to organise a Question Time with local MSPs."

Invitations went out to all six (at that time) parties in Holyrood, and the school was delighted when all but Labour, which sent a substitute, accepted. So the panel are (from top left to right) Bill Aitken (Scottish Conservative), Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat depute minister for education), Patrick Harvie (Green Party), Rosie Kane (Scottish Socialist Party), Drew Smith (Scottish Young Labour) and Sandra White (Scottish National Party).

After the introductions, chair Forbes McFall, a former BBC reporter, invites the first question: what might be done to encourage more people to vote - and should 16-year-olds be able to do so?

For the first of several times, the establishment parties are in broad and unpopular agreement. Bill Aitken wonders if 16-year-olds are interested: "I don't think they are." Neither does Drew Smith. But Robert Brown supports giving 16-year-olds the vote: "Young people are interested in politics.

What they don't see is the relevance of the political parties."

It's a point illustrated well by subsequent answers, as Labour and Conservatives find themselves frequently at the minority end of pupil opinion, surveyed by a show of hands after the panel has spoken.

On siting a super-casino in Glasgow, both parties are in favour, for the jobs it will bring. The audience is against. So is Patrick Harvie, who believes investment in local businesses would be more effective. "Also it is wrong to pay off the gambling industry to accept more regulation with a super-casino."

A question on the recent increase in police powers, allowing groups of young people to be dispersed, produces the largest majority of the morning, with a sea of hands against laws supported by Labour and Conservatives, but described by Mr Harvie as "authoritarian, enforcement-led solutions that will not work".

Sandra White believes the Act will increase tensions between young people and the police: "We should be listening to young people, giving them things to do, not dispersing them."

In answer to a question on nuclear power, Rosie Kane describes it as "clean on the surface but manky underneath".

Knife crime gets a robust response from Bill Aitken: "There has to be a presumption that if you're caught carrying a knife a second time, you are going to the pokey, sunshine."

"Pokey is definitely not the best place for young people," replies Rosie Kane. "We need to deal with the underlying issues."

A question on Tony Blair's unpopularity allows Drew Smith to say that he is "the most successful leader ever" of the Labour party, a view with which Bill Aitken concurs, before adding: "But he will go down in history as a very poor prime minister."

Time runs out before the questions do, so a final, light-hearted enquiry is put to the panel: "Having seen George Galloway as a cat on Big Brother, which animal would you most like to be?"

Rosie Kane chooses a parrot because "I talk quite a lot". Robert Brown selects a cat, as "organising Liberal Democrats is like herding cats". Drew Smith wants to come back as a stingray since, following the death of Steve Irwin, these fish are now being attacked.

The heartfelt response gets a spontaneous round of applause from the pupils who, while dispersing peacefully, share their thoughts on the event.

"I liked how Patrick dealt with nuclear power," says Katy Bridges (S4). "He didn't just give the party line, but listened and tried to answer the question."

"It was interesting to hear the different views on how you could be responsible enough to get married and join the army, but not to vote," says Bethany Abbott (S4).

Regarding who answered best, Angela Clark (S4) says: "Rosie was down-to-earth. You could see she cares about young people. I think she would listen to you."

But impressive individual performances would not necessarily translate directly into votes: "I would need to take a closer look at her policies,"

says Angela.

It's an example of the political awareness of Hyndland Secondary pupils, says Laura Forrester. "We will be following this up with discussions in class, and taking the kids to the Scottish Parliament. But getting the MSPs into our environment worked really well today. I didn't know what to expect when I invited them. But they said they rarely get asked to schools, so they would be delighted to take part."

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