Euro count to boost political support

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Campaigning for politics at an Aberdeenshire school beats voter apathy

There couldn't be a more exciting time to start on a Higher politics course - the Prime Minister's nails are bitten to the quick and every day brings fresh news of more ludicrous MPs' expenses claims.

History teacher Donald Morrison has a passion for politics and he's brought 15 of his Ellon Academy students to the European Election count to see the action first hand. The teenagers usually come to this cavernous hall at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre to see bands like Snow Patrol. But tonight, they watch anxious people with coloured rosettes talk behind their hands to their agents and pace the floor as their votes are counted.

Higher politics will become part of the curriculum at the school this week, as part of an initiative by headteacher Tim McKay to encourage young people to take more interest in politics.

In another venture to promote good citizenship, pupils will also get the chance to vote and stand in their own elections which will become a feature of school life next term. They will form parties, produce manifestos and be awarded real budgets to fund their policies if they are elected. Polling will be organised by the council's election team to mirror the real thing.

The initiative was developed after the local authority invited Mr Morrison to chair a filmed discussion between senior pupils and a range of adults on why fewer people are voting and what young people thought about it. The film will be shown on the council's election website to promote the process.

Some pupils' comments set Mr Morrison thinking - they wanted to vote but were apprehensive about what would happen when they went to the polling station.

"That got me going," says the principal teacher of humanities. "And I thought the best solution to voter apathy and uncertainty about voting in our teenagers was to bring in annual elections in the school - so that if pupils were voting every year and practising democracy actively in S1-6, then it's a relatively short step to going and voting in the real election."

Tonight's visit was another strategy to fire students' enthusiasm, along with regular Question Time sessions held in school, when a panel of well- briefed pupils face a grilling from an audience of around 150 pupils and teachers.

You couldn't accuse Ellon Academy of apathy, though. Sixth-year student Rebecca Cox has just been elected to the Scottish Youth Parliament. And at the count, Mr Morrison has a chance meeting with one of his former history students John Sleigh, 23, who will be standing for the Liberal Democrats as their Westminster candidate for Aberdeen South at the General Election.

"If there is a General Election in the next year, he could become one of the youngest MPs in Britain this century," says Mr Morrison, delighted at the encounter, which adds a new dimension for the pupils.

He does not believe the current crisis in British political life has left young people disaffected with democracy. "The political scandal in Britain has made young people more interested in politics rather than less. Whether that will continue into voting is another matter. But there has never been a better time to start a Higher politics course than now," he says.

"Politics is so much more high profile and the issues involved - about trust and deception - are big items leaching out from the broadsheets into the tabloids, onto television and into comedy programmes. Our young people have picked up on that, they know a lot about it and have become engaged with it."

S5 student Fiona Wallace, 16, is one of the pupils watching the count: "It's really interesting and I was shocked at the 29 per cent turnout, I thought that was bad."

Sixth-year student Martin Leng, 16, is about to start studying Higher politics. "I find it hard to be impassioned about school subjects, but politics is something I am interested in. I'm struggling to find a party which I feel passionate enough to support, though. I feel sorry for Gordon Brown - he's got very little charisma and not a very good personality, but I think he's in the wrong place at the wrong time. The economy and the recession - they're not his fault, he's just had to deal with them and the expenses scandal. He's one of the few that's not been caught in expenses claims, but he's going to take the rap at the election."

The students also get a chance to speak with their Gordon constituency MP, Malcolm Bruce, who is pleased to hear about the school's initiatives. "It's important that people understand how the system works and, if they don't like politics and don't like the system, they need to engage with it to change it, not opt out," he says.

Even Mr Morrison learns something - about spoilt ballot papers: "A tick or a smiley face, if it's clear, is acceptable. In the past, we would have thought you could only put a cross in the box."

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