Young people can be apathetic when it comes to party politics, but they have a unique perspective on the issues of the day. Matthew Brown watches the teenage takeover of Question Time
It's mid-afternoon in Studio 3, a large, bright room at the back of the Lowry Museum in Salford. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over Salford Quays to the silver-sided sculpture of Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum. The words "Manchester United Football Club" shimmer back across the water from Old Trafford, United's home ground.
Not that 17-year-old Chris Bone has time to enjoy the view. A student at Whitby community college, Chris is hunched over a desk, a phone pressed to his ear. "Hi, is that June?" he says. Next to him, Emma Lavery from Bede college, Billingham, stifles a giggle. "June, just make your way to the front entrance and we'll meet you there," says Chris.
"June" is June Sarpong - Channel 4 presenter, Make Poverty History campaigner and a panellist on Schools Question Time, a special edition of the BBC's flagship political show to be broadcast from the Lowry Museum later that evening. Chris, Emma and six other pupils from across the country make up the production team.
In the far corner, Rachel Jenkins and Marcus Trotter from St Teilo's Church in Wales high school in Cardiff are interviewing the last few potential members of tonight's audience. Lizzie Schofield from Whitby college and Craig Klessa from Ilford county high are combing a script for the presenter, David Dimbleby.
At another desk, James Laws from Bede and Ben Kennard from Ilford scan the internet for breaking news. "We have to be on top of everything that's happening," explains James, 17, producer for the day.
These eight teenagers are winners of the second Schools Question Time challenge, a national competition started in 2003 by British Telecom and the Institute of Citizenship. Some 250 schools submitted proposals for a Question Time style event and 12 were shortlisted, each receiving a grant of pound;500 and workshop support from BT to stage their own show. BBC judges picked four winning schools, and each team selected two pupils for the ultimate prize - a chance to make Question Time itself.
Nick Pisani, series editor of the programme, explains why the BBC is involved. "There is a widespread belief that young people are apathetic about politics," he says. "I believe that's not the case. They have different ideas of what matters, maybe, focusing on issues rather than parties and politicians, but this is a way of bringing them into the democratic process and demonstrating that politics isn't boring."
For these lucky students it's "a chance in a lifetime" and an "amazing experience", as James, Lizzie, Craig, Marcus and the other wide-eyed winners comment. But the broader project aims to do much more than that; it seeks to stimulate schools to discuss citizenship and help young people engage in politics and current affairs.
Zandria Pauncefort, chief executive of the Institute of Citizenship, says:
"We know young people are interested but they don't feel accepted on their own terms. The great thing about this concept is they are taken seriously.
Young people see this is for real."
Certainly, these pupils are not playing today, as the regular production staff all but hand over responsibility, allowing them to bring their own ideas to the programme, suggest panellists, shape the audience and choose the questions.
"We try to give them as much control as possible," says Nick Pisani.
"Sometimes their ideas for guests are not realistic - they'd love Coldplay's Chris Martin or Madonna, for example - but they've really grasped the opportunity."
Indeed, the young editors and producers are keen to stamp their mark on the show. They go for a panel containing "old Labour", with Tony Benn, and "new Tory", embodied by MP Justine Greening and pro-hunting campaigner Otis Ferry, alongside Ms Sarpong and Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik. They also insist that half the audience be under 25 and half over 50. "The idea was to address the generation gap by splitting the audience so young people have to fight their corner against older people," Rachel says.
"We thought it would be a way to get young people talking in a more productive manner," adds James. "I think we've been able to add our own touch to a programme that has a long-running formula. Hopefully, we've given it more energy and appeal."
According to David Dimbleby, more young people already watch Question Time than any other BBC current affairs programme. "The Question Time format gives schools a hands-on activity that young people can get stuck into."
Naturally Mr Dimbleby is keen for the programme to be a success. Yet, as president of the Institute of Citizenship, he believes the wider project matters more. "Being part of the programme is their reward and it's important that it's high quality," he says. "But what's more important to me is the preamble - that's when they learn about the heart of good citizenship, about debate and argument, balancing opinions, individuals and society."
For Ian Ferguson, head of history and citizenship co-ordinator at Whitby community college, this is one of the principal benefits of his school's involvement. "I am anxious about the level of political awareness among young people," he says. "But we had about 20 students involved and they were really enthusiastic. The national profile of the programme helps, but the format is a good way to discuss issues. I'll use it in teaching now."
All schools that apply receive a teaching pack from BT, although Ferguson believes it was the practical process of staging their own event that helped his students learn about tolerance and compromise. "They learned a lot about communication too," he says.
Carol Jordan, deputy head at Ilford county high, agrees. "It's a great vehicle for communication skills. And the fact that it's so hands-on is wonderful, it's a real experience."
By 6.30pm the "real experience" begins. The hush around Studio 3 is replaced by tension as recording time approaches. Lizzie, Craig, James and Ben are bent over a desk sorting through stacks of questions from the audience. "We need a good G8 question," says Nick Pisani, standing over his young charges. "What's that one Craig? Do you like that one?" Gradually questions submitted by the studio audience are marked, shortlisted, rejected and argued over until the options are whittled down to six.
By 8pm attention has shifted to Quay Theatre where recording will start in 30 minutes. At 15, Marcus is the youngest of the crew, but soon he's walking out in front of the Question Time crowd, microphone in hand, to help the warm-up and pick out the chosen questioners. Around him, men in headphones mumble into radios, making final adjustments to sound, lighting and cameras.
At 8.30, David Dimbleby arrives to introduce the panel. Recording starts and the show gets into its familiar swing. Asbos are argued over; Benn and Ferry clash over protest and the sanctity of Parliament; everyone has a go at the Government for cutting civil liberties; and no one understands the Manchester United takeover well enough to provide an intelligent answer.
Young people in the audience are as vocal as the older ones.
And then, after less than an hour, it's all over. The schools are presented with awards and Richard Jones, another pupil from St Teilo's high, plays the Question Time theme live on the piano.
"It was great," an excited Lizzie says afterwards. "At one point we thought we didn't have enough questions, but in the end it was timed perfectly."
"I was nervous," says James, who's been feeding information to David Dimbleby via producer Richard Garvin. "But I think this is the kind of job I'd like to do; I like the pressure."
Lizzie's learned a lot about teamwork as well as politics. "Watching the production team you realise that everyone has their own strengths, and without one the whole thing wouldn't happen," she says. "Like most teens I did think politics was boring, but now I've changed. As teenagers we learn the stereotype that politicians are old men with black suits who people disagree with. Now, I see it's more complicated."
For Chris, too, the experience was thrilling. "I never thought there'd be so much to a TV programme," he says. "We've shown that democracy is still alive. Young people can be politically active, despite what people think."
Schools Question Time was broadcast on BBC1 at 10.35pm on Thursday, June 30. For more information go to www.citizen.org.uk. To register for next year's Schools Question Time go to www.bt.comeducationschoolsqt or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The teachers' resource pack for secondary schools will be available online from September