"Children are really fired up by debates. Young people want to know that it is their world and there are things they can do with it. But call it 'citizenship', and they start snoring."
So said broadcaster David Dimbleby, president of the Institute for Citizenship, as he launched this year's Schools Question Time Challenge. "I think citizenship is in big trouble as a concept. It's seen by many teachers as a pain in the arse. They don't know how to tackle it. It sounds so boring. The whole staffroom just sighs, 'not citizenship'."
His poor view of the subject's treatment was shared by Ofsted in a recent report, which found that citizenship lessons were not being well enough taught in a quarter of secondaries.
Mr Dimbleby believes that schools should break down the subject into smaller chunks, such as media studies or debating sessions. And events such as the Schools Question Time Challenge can inspire pupils to take an active interest in politics.
The competition, sponsored by The TES, requires 14 to 18-year-olds to submit proposals for a political discussion based on the the BBC's Question Time format, drawing up a list of issues to be discussed, and inviting panellists from their school or local community. Twelve finalist schools will receive a pound;500 grant to stage their own local event. Four winners will then take part in a real Question Time, to be screened next July.
Pupils at Wolverhampton girls' high, supervised by Paul Beeston, head of politics, were among the winning teams last year. Mr Beeston said: "It's teamwork, but it's teamwork at a different level. You're working at the BBC, with famous people, professional people. And you're working to a tight deadline. That motivates pupils."
The deadline for entries is January 5, 2007. But schools that apply before November 3 can receive a visit from a BBC journalist, who will talk to pupils about working in the media.
Last year, pupils at Langley Park girls' comprehensive, in Kent, received a visit from Huw Edwards, the BBC newscaster. Tim Riley, head of politics, said: "Although they see news presenters as celebrities, they learn that it is damn hard work to get there."
Mr Dimbleby said: "My background in politics began with Suez and the Cold War. Young people are in a different world. Their starting point is the Iraq war. Politics is constantly renewing itself, and that's what makes it interesting. Schools Question Time helps us to refresh and change things.
We always learn from it."