A small but mighty election

14th December 2012 at 00:00
A Scottish Parliament project drew out pupils' inner politician, as Jackie Cosh reports

Nine-year-old Lucy Walters and 11-year-old Alasdair Bennett are discussing why they think he won the election.

"You were really confident," Lucy tells her classmate.

Alasdair agrees. "I asked people what they wanted, and when we were campaigning I kept trying when people argued."

I arrive post-election, but within minutes I see what Lucy and Alasdair mean.

"My election motto was `Vote for A and get your say'. We made loads of posters and then at the weekend I made more. I believe in improvements for the school," Alasdair adds.

It is not too surprising that the P7 pupil from Athelstaneford Primary in East Lothian was also voted presiding officer of the parliament.

"As part of their inter-disciplinary learning, we were working on a Scottish Parliament project," says head Scott Lavery. "We had planned to visit the Scottish Parliament first, but we weren't able to go until September and it worked out better, as we were able to put the learning into context."

Each class in the 52-pupil school has two MSPs - two from P12, two from P34 and two from P567. Everything, from the campaigning to the voting, was done as close to real life as possible.

"We went through the proper process for choosing candidates," says Lucy, who explains how everyone in the class went round with a whiteboard, collecting nominations. The four pupils in the class with the most votes became candidates.

"We made rosettes and posters," says Anna Lerpiniere, 11.

"And we made leaflets and did speeches," says Alasdair.

"We got the whole school in here and showed them round the voting table," says Lucy. "On the day of the election, the polling station was in the foyer. We got polling cards and voted in secret."

"I was quite excited waiting for the vote," says Anna. She has just found out that she is head of the health and well-being committee, so is thinking of ideas for what they can do.

Teacher Isabel Anderson was initially wary of the project. "I didn't fancy it at all," she says. "It wasn't something I was naturally interested in, and I didn't feel that I had a particularly great knowledge base, but part of it is learning with them, and I became more interested as we went along."

Once the project began, the children in P567 had the chance to go along to see the Scottish Parliament for the day.

"We did some research, finding out about the Scottish Parliament beforehand - what it looked like and what it does," says Mrs Anderson. "When we visited, the children were told that they were very informed."

East Lothian MSP Iain Gray was unable to meet the children on the day, so he came along to the school the following Monday.

"He was very, very helpful," says Mrs Anderson. We got one of the pupils to phone his office to arrange it. He spoke to a nice lady and when she started to talk dates, he handed the telephone to me."

Each class elected two MSPs from a choice of four. With six members in total, the parliament will be meeting regularly to discuss issues and decide on possible action. Improving the school toilets is currently top of the list.

For those who didn't win, there are committees to get involved in - health and well-being, environment, and behaviour, although Mr Lavery says there are no problems with behaviour. The unsuccessful candidates were all given leadership roles in the committees and others were chosen by pulling names from a hat.

"They all bought into it," says Mrs Anderson. It was amazing how competitive they became, working on their manifestos and rosettes - anything to promote it. There was a lot of group writing, and because they were interested in what they were writing, they began buying into the jargon and how to write a `for' and `against' argument."

"There was a tremendous buzz. Some made party political broadcasts, using the smartboard. The ideas came from them. They were given simple tasks, but they looked at what else they could do. The candidates were introducing themselves to other teachers. They didn't miss an opportunity to speak to anyone."

Waiting until after the October break to set up the groups has worked out better, says Mr Lavery. "It gave the pupils context. They got settled into school life and gained knowledge of the parliament. This has been key in terms of motivation.

"This is the first time I have ever been in a school where pupils have led the meeting. The most positive thing for me is the enthusiasm and ownership, and how it made sense to them. At one point, I said we should elect a chairman. They corrected me and said no, it should be a presiding officer. I genuinely believe that they are getting a lot out of it."

`MY PRIORITIES? TOILETS, TOPICS AND WINDOWS'

Presiding officer Alasdair Bennett is excited about the challenges ahead and keen to make a start. "Yesterday we agreed priorities - toilets, school topics, windows, the condition of the outside benches after the winter, and getting more benches in the hall. The top bench won't be happening this year. We need to raise more funds.

"We will work with committees. So if we were focusing on the playground, we would invite the environment committee along and we have invited the health and well-being committee to our next monthly meeting.

"There will be monthly meetings and weekly meetings, and committees will be invited to the monthly meetings."

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