Cast your ballot for the pupil council

6th May 2005 at 01:00
I organised my first school mock election during the general election of 1979. As Margaret Thatcher swept into power nationally, our pupils voted Labour. On the following day, the local newspaper printed a photograph of our candidates and, to bring him down to earth, the winner got a row from his mum for wearing his white gym shoes rather than his black school shoes.

At subsequent elections our ability to pick winners didn't improve.

When Conservatives formed the Government, Labour won our school elections.

When Labour came to power, we voted SNP.

We were never fertile ground for Tories and I always felt sorry for their candidates. He (never a she) would be innocent and earnest, unaware that he owed his position to the manipulation of his more worldly classmates who knew how to avoid an uncool party. Nor would he notice that he had the least committed campaign team, many of whom would spot the way the wind was blowing and defect to the opposition. Even those who stayed loyal could not be guaranteed to vote for him.

Last time, not content with covering the school in their home-made posters, our enterprising candidates decided to visit the local campaign headquarters on their way home. They would explain about their election and see what they could scrounge. The SNP welcomed their young supporters and showered them with posters, balloons and rolls and rolls of yellow stickers. The Tories chased theirs.

The mock election involves under-18s in what is grandly called "the democratic process". They cast their votes, just like grown-ups do. Before that, they question the candidates and give even-handed consideration to their views. Then they ignore everything and vote for the candidate with the best smile, the nicest hair or the funniest jokes. Just like grown-ups do.

But children have more fun at elections than grown-ups. They make paper hats and rosettes, compose rousing campaign songs and learn how to heckle the opposition while shouting support for their own candidate. Sometimes voters are bribed with sweets or football stickers, although teachers are not supposed to hear about underhand tactics. Adults lost out when television and soundbites took over from the knockabout of the hustings.

Despite the fun, the mock election has problems. Do child candidates adopt political labels and make speeches from party political standpoints? Eleven-year-olds will just talk rubbish; they can't help it. Worse is when well-meaning dads fancy themselves as speech-writers. Either way, you condone rubbish.

The alternative is to invent your own parties with their own policies and programmes. So what if they want to run school for only two hours a day, choose their own teachers and build a swimming pool on the roof? They know it is just a bit of fun. Well, older pupils do; younger ones actually believe it. And that's another problem with mock elections. After casting your vote and acclaiming the winning candidate, nothing happens. Nobody has the chance to put a policy into action.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the mock election was special because adult elections were rare. Then the Hansard Society and BBC's Newsround encouraged everyone to jump on board. Now, with the Scottish and European parliaments joining in, we have a surfeit of opportunities for mock elections and familiarity breeds contempt.

We can do better if we introduce the democratic process through our pupil councils. All the fun of the "mock" can be transferred, but it's about the children's own school and the realistic ways in which they can improve it.

Even better, there is a point to the campaigning and ballot counting. The winning candidates have their chance to implement their ideas (well, some of them) and they have to report back to the electors and account to them for their work.

The days of mock elections are over. Your pupil council means you don't have to pretend any more.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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