Caroline St John-Brooks listens to pupils quiz their MP in a project to stimulate interest in politics
Who is running this country, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown?" "What are your views on the legalisation of cannabis?" "Do you think we will convert to the euro soon and what will affect the decision?" "Should teenage mothers have more support?"
Surrounded by 50 or so teenagers, Andy Reed, the Labour MP for Loughborough, leans back in his school chair. In his shirt-sleeves, he appears to be relaxed in the face of the barrage of questions fired at him by Year 9 pupils.
He is visiting the Garendon High School in his constituency as part of the MPs and Schools Project, a scheme launched last June by the Hansard Society as part of its citizenship education programme.
Some 400 MPs have expressed interest in the project, designed to encourage young people to become more engaged with politics and social issues and develop a fuller understanding of politicians' work.
Peter Luff, Conservative MP for Mid-Worcestershire, has also signed up to the scheme, and has visited Prince Henry's High School in Evesham. "I thought the day was hugely successful," he says, "and they'd got some very well-prepared questions. The issues they raised ranged from what an MP's working life is like, through the rights and wrongs of fox-hunting, to what facilities teenagers need in the local area. The pupils had done a survey of their peer group, which is a nice example of constructive political action, and some of them said that as a result of my talk they would consider being MPs. Young people are a much more diverse and thoughtful bunch than they're sometimes given credit for, and I think this kind of initiative is very important for the future of parliamentary democracy."
At Garendon High School, citizenship is taught throughout the curriculum, as well as a special Year 9 module which focuses on central and local government. The school is unusual in that all its pupils are in Years 7, 8 and 9. At 14, they transfer to Burleigh Community College, which is on the same campus.
One benefit of this arrangement, according to assistant head Kate McLaughlin, is that the Year 9s, being at the top of the school, get the chance to be more adult than they do in most schools. Certainly they listen intently to Andy Reed and their questions are thoughtful and, in some cases, challenging. "What do you hope to gain by talking to us?" asks Alexis.
Andy Reed replies that he wants to know what young people think, and to demonstrate that MPs are ordinary people in touch with real life, who "went to schools similar to yours". He generally responds in a full and open manner, often relating issues to his experience, and sometimes turning the questions round and asking the students what they think. He confesses his doubts about the wisdom of going to war with Iraq, explains how he and his wife try to protect the environment by not using disposable nappies, and describes how a discussion of the 1984 Ethiopian famine at a church debating group when he was a teenager got him interested in politics.
Afterwards, a group of pupils say they've gained a lot from the session, and feel better-informed than before.
"It's a good scheme because you can talk to your MP direct and address different issues," said Sophia Ansari. "It was all quite complex but he made it very clear," said David Milodowski. "He was more genuine and approachable than I expected," said Lereina Amarasekara. "I liked it when he explained why he was inspired to go into politics - he wanted his voice to be heard. It gives us the sense we can stand up and make a difference even if it's just in school politics."
Ricki Chowdhury agreed that Andy Reed came across as an honest politician, but his comments showed a political understanding well beyond his years.
"He came here well-prepared and he knew what he was talking about. But he could only be truthful because he's not a very important person. If he was prime minister he wouldn't be so honest with us about some of those things."
The project is aimed at key stages 2 and 3, and a support pack has been prepared by the Hansard Society, the Citizenship Foundation and the Parliamentary Education Unit. The pack includes guidance for teachers, notes for MPs and ideas for activities, and is made up of separate units designed to be used flexibly by participating schools. These include warm-up activities, advice on how to debate with your MP, fact-sheets on Parliament and government, and an account of how Newford, a fictional town, chooses its elected representative. Details of how to register for the scheme can be found on the Hansard Society website at: www.hansard-society.org.uk