Mysteries of the ballot box;Television

21st May 1999 at 01:00
THE X FILE. C4 Schools Video pound;14.95. Teacher's guide pound;3.95. Age range:8-10

The truth is out there. Robin Buss on a series that reveals details of the democratic process

The X in this series for primary children does not mark an unknown quantity or a mistake, but the voter's choice on a ballot paper - "Something we use a cross for that's more important than anything else." And the aim of the five programmes is to introduce children, who may have another 10 years to go before they can exercise their own right to vote, to the basic concepts of democracy and elected government.

This is an especially good time to catch their interest, as even children of this age are likely to have heard some echoes of the campaign to elect the new Scottish Parliament. Civic and political education are areas which have traditionally been neglected in Britain (although the present government has announced that it is introducing citizenship education for five to 16-year-olds).

But politics is a delicate matter, not always considered suitable for young ears. So there is a traditional assumption that it is a subject best dealt with outside school and left as late as possible. Why bother little children with the things adults get up to? At 18, nature will show them where to put that cross.

One reason for this reticence is, of course, the fear of indoctrination. The X File tells us a lot about what mummies and daddies do in their parliaments and polling booths, but is charmingly prudish about the real passions that drive them. "I decided a long, long time ago to join a political party," Roseanna Cunningham MP confesses. "And when you do that, you look around to see which political party you agree with the most." Rest assured, we never discover which one she chose; the young viewers do not have to listen to any crude terms such as "Labour", "Conservative", "SNP" or "Liberal Democrat" - none of these is ever explicitly named, perhaps for fear it might encourage the children to indulge in a spot of party politics of their own. We don't want to find them playing spin doctors behind the bicycle shed.

Instead, notions of government and democracy are explained in terms of a street gang choosing its leader by increasingly democratic means. One entertaining character called Angus MacAngry (played by Phil Kay) turns up at intervals to tell us he wants to be Prime Minister and to complain that no one is looking after his affairs. The children let him know that he can write to his MP or, if that fails, vote his elected representative out at the next opportunity. Bit by bit, as the series goes on, MacAngry is reluctantly forced to concede that this democracy may not be such a bad idea after all.

Various levels of representation are also explained. Here the desire to avoid controversy has the effect, probably unintended, of making the series seem strongly Europhile and the Community simply a matter of common sense. Members of the British and European parliaments tell us how they spend their time. Presenter Zoe Johnston gets a special word of encouragement from Tony Blair, and we learn a little about the history of Britain's gradual progress towards its present form of government.

The accompanying teacher's book outlines the content of each programme, with suggestions for activities before and after viewing, linked to several other curriculum areas.

Overall, this amounts to an effective introduction for the future citizens of Britain and Europe. They will have plenty of time later to learn about the more disturbing passions and pleasures of politics.

Resources available from C4 Learning, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ. Tel: 01926 436444

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