With a general election in the offing, what do students in colleges think about the political process? Or should that read: do our students think about the political process?
To try and find the answer, I devised a short questionnaire aimed at those who had recently got the vote or were just about to get it - the 17 to 19-year-olds. If I were honest Iwould say I expected to find that your average 17-year-old thought that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was called M. Mouse, and that I would have a laugh and feel smug at their ignorance.
That was not, however, quite the way it worked out. For reasons too complicated to go in to, the survey ended up being answered by 50 or so adult students, mainly on access courses, but also by some practising and aspirant FE teachers on a teacher-training course. The access students were all in their twenties and thirties, but the teachers were older, with several in their fifties and an average age of 40.
The first thing to say is that they did not think that the Chancellor's name was Mickey Mouse. They thought it was Rupert Bear. Or at least one of them did. At least one of them said he did, as it seems unlikely that even an Access to Media student really thinks that the man who holds the nation's purse strings is a cuddly toy.
But then he did not know that he was called Gordon Brown either. In this he was not alone. Fewer than half of my unscientifically selected sample knew the current Chancellor's name - and that only days after the budget, when the news was wall-to-wall Brown!
There were quite a lot of other things they did not know too. Only a third successfully named Jack Straw as Foreign Secretary. One student thought it was Jeffrey Archer, perhaps remembering the keen interest the errant novelist and one-time deputy chair of the Tory party once took in foreign affairs. The Lib Dems can take comfort from the fact that just over half recognised the name of their leader, but for the Conservatives it was a mixed message. While around 60 per cent could supply Michael Howard's name as leader of the party, only 15 per cent - fewer than one in five - could name any other member of the shadow cabinet.
Under half of the sample knew what the function of the House of Lords was, although most could manage to correctly identify the party which has the majority of MPs in the Commons: 44 out of 50 named Labour; the other six presumably think we are being governed by the Monster Raving Loony Party.
When faced with questions about more local matters, knowledge was spread yet more thinly. Under half could name their own parliamentary constituency, and only a third knew the name of their local MP.
When asked if they were going to vote in the general election, only half said yes, with their likely votes evenly split between the three main parties. One student answered "no way" to this question, which seemed to me to indicate a much stronger rejection of the political process than a simple "no".
This feeling of disenchantment and disengagement was apparent throughout the answers given. Those who said they would vote gave negative, rather than positive, reasons for their choice of party. Some comments here were:
"Don't like Labour" (Cons); "To keep the Conservatives out" (Lab); "Because I'm fed up with Blair and fear Howard more" (Lib Dem).
The question then arises: what are we to make of this sorry tale of ignorance and apathy, remembering that these are not kids but adult students on level 3 courses or above? On one level the findings should come as no surprise, reflecting as they do that more general lack of interest in things political - or at least party political - which is evident in the general population. At a time of relative affluence, and with little to choose between the policies of the main parties, isn't it too much to expect passion about, or even interest in, the small differences between three brands of blandness?
Perhaps what should be of concern though were the answers given by the teachers. Strikingly, they fell into two distinct categories: those who knew everything and those who knew nothing. The ignorance of those in the latter category is shocking, given that they either teach, or are soon to teach, other people.
An example of this is one female student, in her mid-twenties, who could answer none of the questions on prominent people in the Government and opposition. Another student, this time in her forties, managed one correct answer out of seven. She would not vote, she declared, because: "There all rubish (sic)!"
Precisely what the recreation habits of these nurturers of the next generation consist of I'm not sure, but from the state of their knowledge of the world around them, I wouldn't be surprised to find that it consisted entirely of darkened rooms and bags on heads!