The bright honourable members

14th May 1999 at 01:00
The Children'sParliament ismore than just playing House. Victoria Neumark meets two ambitious 'junior ministers' who hope to influence Prescott, Blunkett and Boothroyd.

Punam Oza and Jordon Clarke are Very Important People. They are about to meet the Deputy Prime Minister, the Education Secretary and the Speaker of the House of Commons...and tell them how to save the planet.

With 52 other 10 and 11-year-olds, this pair of schoolfriends are regional winners in a Government-sponsored project to create a Children's Parliament on the environment. And it's high-level stuff. Next Tuesday they visit the Granada studios in Manchester to debate four resolutions on the environment. And the following Tuesday they'll be in London to quiz Betty Boothroyd, John Prescott and David Blunkett at the House of Commons.

It's a long way from their primary school just off London's North Circular Road, but Punam and Jordon are taking it in their stride. They are used to the cut and thrust of debate, thanks to Oakthorpe Primary, where performance and persuasion are in the air. Dazzling school musicals are staged each year, and there are regular debating contests, assemblies and role-play sessions in class.

The school, whose management and governing body were commended as "outstanding" by OFSTED last year, aims to give pupils - a majority of whom begin school life with English as an additional language - fluency and control over language. "Drama is so important,'' says headteacher Geoff Cumner-Price.

For Oakthorpe, news of the Children's Parliament competition came at a time when traffic congestion in the narrow cul-de-sac which serves the school had become so bad that the council had put up metal barriers along the pavement. Concerned parents waved banners and lobbied motorists, who in turn were fuming at the stressful conditions and the danger of accidents.

Jordon does what he can to ease the congestion. "I have to come to school by car because I've moved farther away, but we only drive halfway and then I walk," he says.

When Mr Cumner-Price picked Jordon and Punam to prepare a speech on an environmental issue, there was no doubt what the topic would be. The School Run. Like the 3,500 other primaries in the initial competition, Oakthorpe used their entry to stimulate discussion. Year 6 interviewed parents, police, a councillor and Enfield's road traffic engineer. And the borough engineer was so impressed with the pupils' thinking that he wants to draft them in to talk to parents in other schools.

Oakthorpe's contribution to the Children's Parliament contest swept the board in the local heats and then at the London regional finals, where there were 29 other teams. With one other debating team, from St Anthony's Junior in Newham, and an essay-writing team from Highbury Quadrant in Islington, the Oakthorpe duo make up the London regional winners and are set to join winners from eight other regions.

Punam and Jordon have important things to say about co-operation and the fight against pollution. "We talk about that kind of thing all the time in school," says Jordon. Their speech is more of a stand-up routine. They work well together, catching up each other's lines with polish and sparkle; and they radiate enthusiasm.

Part of this is technique: "Mr Cumner-Price told us to make eye contact with the audience," explains Punam. Another part of it is down to organisation: "We focused on one theme," she says.

But will all this have any tangible result in the big wide world? Organiser Alun Evans, a senior researcher at the University of Wales, believes so. In the Granada studios where the replica of the House of Commons chamber is regularly used by film-makers, the children are preparing to debate four resolutions:

* By 2010 all energy in England must be from renewable sources.

* Shops should sell things that last longer.

* By 2010 all cars that do not run on electricity should be banned from city centres.

* To protect the countryside, we should build more homes in towns and cities.

The Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, and the Serjeant-at-Arms, Milburn Talbot, will officiate at the mock debate on May 18. On May 25, Punam, Jordon and their 52 debating colleagues will be grilling Messrs Prescott and Blunkett and Miss Boothroyd in a committee room at the House of Commons.

Then nine pupils will go on to 10 Downing Street to present their own White Paper on the environment to Prime Minster Tony Blair, who has promised the Government will give it full consideration.

Professor Ted Wragg, who with John Prescott has been involved in the project since its inception, is convinced that the voices of Punam, Jordon and their colleagues will make a difference. "This is a notable piece of democracy," he says.

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