Pupils grill the politicians

Children's Express reporters cross-examined the education spokespeople, writes Joanne Bird

Eat your heart out, Jeremy Paxman. When it comes to interviewing hard-bitten politicians it is humbling to discover that children can leave professional interrogators standing.

Thanks to some sharp questioning from five junior journalists from Children's Express, the world can now be told of Labour's plans to make homework more enjoyable, the Liberal Democrats' scheme to carpet the nation's schools, and the Tories' penchant for putting heads back to work in the classroom.

And if that were not enough, Labour's David Blunkett was coaxed into a confession - some would say a gaffe - that, as a schoolboy, he was not above a bit of discreet intimidation to stop his classmates from causing mayhem.

All three of the main parties' education spokespeople took time out of their busy campaigning schedules to talk to a team of children recruited by the children's news agency from inner-city schools.

Gillian Shephard, for the Conservatives, proved to be the hardest to extract a story from, remaining determinedly "on message" for much of her interview.

"Examination and test results show that standards are rising and it isn't the case that all the classrooms were overcrowded," she said.

"I believe that people are getting better at taking exams and doing better in exams. However, we need to keep an eye on the standards of exams because they're a very important national currency."

If things are so good in the state education system, then why, she was asked, do most Conservative party members send their children to private schools.

"Well," she said, "I don't think ... that is true. My own step-children went into the state system, but we believe that there should be a mixed economy within the education system."

Predictable stuff, perhaps. But then Sinead Kirwan, 12, bowled her a googly: "I've got 34 in my class and I know that one teacher isn't enough. Do you think that if classroom numbers were smaller, pupils would do better?" "I wonder if the head or the deputy teaches?" she said. "Because that makes a very great difference to overall class size in a school."

Her reply was met with scepticism. "I always thought head-teachers were there to manage," said Sinead afterwards. "Do you think she really understood?" Mrs Shephard went on to defend exam league tables, which did not go down too well with her interviewers. The vote for the best reply on the subject went to the Lib Dems. "A waste of time," said Don Foster.

The Lib Dems' pledge to put a penny on tax to fund educational investment was also well received. But did he think that people were willing to pay more?

"I don't know if people will be prepared to pay ... it would cost the average tax-payer something like 45p per week - the price of a can of Coke."

Mr Foster was also asked what he would like to introduce to education. Unexpectedly, he confided: "You may think this is a silly answer, I would like to see every school have carpets throughout. I think it would make a big difference."

Not silly at all, thought his interrogators. "When you go to a school it looks like a prison" said Delwar Hussain, 17, "Not a place that kids want to be in."

Martin Webb, 13, said: "It would be more comfortable and warmer, but it would probably get disgusting in no time."

Mr Blunkett was relaxed for his interview, referring to his own school experiences: "Teachers do need to know how to deal with discipline. We also need to instil pressure from the peer group.

"When I was at school two or three people caused mayhem. The teacher wasn't strict, so we pupils decided to get strict with them. We told them if they didn't behave we'd do them over after class. I wouldn't advocate this - as an education policy, you understand - otherwise I shan't get the job."

Indiscreet? Perhaps. More likely, however, his remarks simply underline Mr Blunkett's tough guy image. He too was, for the most part, firmly "on message".

Mr Blunkett was also asked about failing schools.

"My school is under threat of closure because of last year's OFSTED report, " said Stuart Fletcher, 14. "Now the head wants to lose nine teachers, get rid of special education needs and abolish GNVQs because the school is underfunded and failing. What would Labour do?" Mr Blunkett replied that Labour wouldn't pull the financial plug while any new plan was being put into effect, but he warned: "If the school fails to implement its action plan, we'll either close and reopen it completely with new teachers and management, or we'll have to close it permanently."

He asked Stuart for the school's name, and said he hoped that if Labour came to power they could save it. His interviewees were impressed and Stuart was delighted by the sincerity of the reply. "I thought that was really friendly, " he said.

Less popular, Mr Blunkett gave firm replies about homework. He said Labour was very keen on homework. It shouldn't be a miserable grind. "It can be fun, " he said and asked, somewhat naively: "Is it something you enjoy?" Undeterred by the unanimous no, he said that meant that Labour had to make homework enjoyable and give children somewhere to study.

Homework fun? Surely this will be one of the toughest tasks to face an incoming Labour education secretary. But now, thanks to some tough questioning, the nation's schoolchildren have a firm pledge.

Children's Express is a programme of learning through journalism. As a charity, it promotes the views and investigations of children aged eight to 18. Report and interviews by Delwar Hussain, 17; Shahi Ahmed, 15; Denis Shukur, 15; Stuart Fletcher, 14; and Rachel Bulford, 16. Reporters, Sinead Kirwan, 12; Ruth Sewell,12; Juanita Rosenior,12; Martin Webb,13; Toby Webb,11; and Abeyna Jones, 13.

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