Government matters

7th May 1999 at 01:00
As Scotland's freshly elected MSPs prepare for the first sitting of the new parliament next week, its education officers are ready and eager to show young people democracy in action, writes Julie Morrice.

The splendid interior of the Assembly Hall is still tacky with paint, jovial security men seem to outnumber parliamentary staff, and MSPs are recovering from last night's celebrations, but the education officer of the Scottish Parliament has already been hard at work for almost four months.

Alan McClosky's early appointment, ahead of some of the most senior civil servants, is an indication of how seriously the new parliament takes the business of explaining itself and its workings to the public, and to young people in particular.

Mr McClosky is a former teacher of modern studies and French. His assistant education officer, Jackie Spiers, was a primary teacher. Fresh from the classroom, both are well aware of how schools work and what teachers will find useful, but they are also aware of what the nation's young people have to offer the new democratic process, and hope to provide a genuine platform for them within the new parliament.

"We're operating in a vacuum," says Mr McClosky. "I suppose we don't officially exist until the parliament starts up."

But they have already achieved plenty. Alan McClosky has been networking with everyone from TAG Theatre Company to Charter 88 and the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, pulling together a working group on the voice of youth within the new parliament. A teacher's pack, containing "a bluffer's guide" to the parliament and strategies for learning and teaching, has been drafted and goes out to all Scottish schools in early June.

"Many teachers have been in touch, saying they are keen to teach their classes about the parliament, but they don't know anything about it," says Mr McClosky. For everyone, even those most intimately involved in its workings, the new Scottish parliament will be an unknown quantity until it exists.

Plans for school visits, workshops and meetings with MSPs are ready and waiting. The debating chamber, splendid in peacock blue upholstery and pale wood, has generous balcony space for visitors, and Mr McClosky wants "to get as many people through as possible". He hopes to have six to eight visits a week, which compares favourably with Westminster's one a week.

When school visits do not coincide with debates, pupils may be able to set foot on the chamber floor. "The politicians may be unwilling to have so many people coming through the chamber," he admits, "but the commitment to openness is genuine, and that holds true across all the political parties."

Until the Holyrood parliament building is ready, in 2001, the education service will be based in Cannonball House, a splendid, old three-storey building right at the top of the Royal Mile, overlooking the castle esplanade. Here school groups will meet MSPs, stage debates, and explore, through role-play and discussion, the effect the parliament will have on their lives.

The message Mr McClosky wants to get across is a democratic one. "It's about persuading them their voice will count," he says. "I would never criticise children for being disillusioned with the political process, but we want to show them democracy in action - not something intimidating and arcane, but something that has relevance to their daily lives."

Visits to schools have already shown that Scotland's young people are fired up by the prospect of the parliament. "Children ask the questions adults think are too stupid to ask, and often get right to the heart of the matter," says Jackie Spiers. "At a school in Fife, one of the first things pupils wanted to know was if we were political. No one is going to take these voters-in-embryo for a ride."

Future visits to schools are likely to be constrained by budgetary limits, and by the fact that the education department is only two-strong, but Alan McClosky hopes a combination of information technology and willing constituency MSPs will keep even the most distant schools in touch with the Edinburgh base.

The parliament's website will have a section aimed specifically at teachers and pupils. "That will be the main conduit for updating and supplementing the teacher's packs," says Mr McClosky, who is also planning a CD-Rom that will link into the website. "Teachers are looking for something they can download and use as a self-contained teaching unit," he says, "but if they want material in traditional formats, we can provide that too."

They also hope to provide video-conferencing links, so pupils can lobby their MSPs or take part in mock debates with pupils from other parts of Scotland. There will be virtual tours of the parliament building, and TV recordings of debates will be available at Cannonball House.

Schools will be able to contact the parliament by e-mail, and a mobile display unit will accompany the parliamentary committees when they tour the country, as they are committed to do. In-service on a local authority rather than individual school basis may also be a way to spread information efficiently.

Mr McClosky has been working with the SCCC to see how all this will articulate with the five-to-14 curriculum, but, he points out, "I don't want it just to slot neatly into Standard grade modern studies. I'm hoping it will permeate the curriculum and throughout the school."

Searching for the principles of democracy in the running of their own schools has proved popular with pupils. "Pupils at one school we visited suggested that if they had to wear uniform, so should the teachers," says Ms Spiers.

"It fits in well with the personal and social development strand in five-to-14," she adds. "Representing their peers or speaking in a debate can do a lot for the sort of child who may not excel in maths or writing."

Just days before the election, there was a palpable excitement bubbling away around the old regional chambers and the Assembly Hall, as Scotland geared up for a bit of self-determination. Mr McClosky and Ms Spiers are clearly delighted to be involved in such a significant moment in the nation's history, but what they have enjoyed most about the job so far is the opportunity to stand back and take stock.

Schools looking for materials on the Scottish Parliament or wishing to arrange visits should contact Alan McClosky at Committee Chambers, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh EH99 1SP, tel 0131 244 1401 or e-mail Higher Still books, "Modern Studies: The Government of Scotland" (Higher) pound;6 and "Modern Studies: Power and Influence on Decision Making" (Intermediate 1 and 2) pound;5 are available from Scottish CCC, Gardyne Road, Broughty Ferry, Dundee DD5 1NY, tel 01382 455053


MAY 12 First sitting of new parliament elected on May 6. Over the following days the MSPs will be sworn in and the Presiding Officer (equivalent of Westminster's Speaker) and First Minister will be chosen from among their ranks.

MID-MAY Parliament's website launched at www.scottish.

JUNE 1 Cannonball House will be officially opened and the teachers' guide will be sent out to all schools in Scotland.

JULY 1 Opening ceremony for the Parliament.

9-10am Royal Mile closed to traffic. Crown of Scotland brought to Assembly Hall from Edinburgh Castle

10-11am Procession of MSPs and judiciary, accompanied by young people representing a range of communities from across Scotland, from Parliament House to Assembly Hall.

11am-noon The Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, in an open carriage accompanied by members of the Household Cavalry, leave Holyrood for the Assembly Hall. The Queen meets group of young people and gives present of a mace to the Parliament.

Noon-1pm RAF fly-past. Civic receptions and public events continue throughout the afternoon and evening.

AUGUSTSEPTEMBER Educational visits to the parliament begin.

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