Our House;Politics

26th June 1998 at 01:00
No matter how enthusiastically Tony Blair hobnobs with trendy pop stars and fashion designers, teenagers still find politics a turn-off. Gerald Haigh hails a scheme that aims to bridge the generation gap by taking Parliament to the people SECTION:Features NO PHYSICAL FILEI was chatting with friends when their 19-year-old son flitted into the room. He was wearing a smart sweatshirt bearing the letters "YSL" on the chest. "Oh," I said, "it's ages since I met a member of the Young Socialist League. Are they still active?" He smiled and left the room. "Yves St Laurent," his mother corrected me.

It was partly to address the perceived detachment from politics of young people that the Youth Parliament Competition, sponsored by the telecommunications company Motorola, was devised. Each school holds a role-playing debate, using procedures based on those of Parliament. There are ministers and shadow ministers, and a gaggle of backbenchers on both sides. A video of the debate is sent to regional judges, and regional winners are then judged by a national panel. As well as an overall winner, there are awards such as Best Prime Minister and Best Leader of the Opposition.

Last year, winners and runners-up also took part in a live, televised debate at Granada Television's studios. (A decision about this year's live debate has been deferred because of problems in finding a date.) The team from St Michael's RC School in Billingham, Cleveland - this year's winners -believe the competition fulfils its aims. Steven Dunn, a Year 11 pupil who was shadow transport minister in his school's debate on traffic pollution, says: "It helps us to understand what goes on in Parliament."

"Backbencher" Andrew Chipchase, also of Year 11, says: "If Mohamed Al Fayed is passing money to a Member of Parliament, for example, I now understand just how big an issue it is."

Eddie Curran, head of history, who was in charge of the school's entry, sees more subtle benefits. "It combats the cynicism that many young people feel towards politics and politicians, and gives them a chance to see that many politicians are working very hard for the country and for the young people themselves. Democracy in the future depends on this."

St Michael's entry - a video including "Prime Minister's Questions" and the pollution tax debate - is compulsive viewing. You start not to notice the school hall, or the skew-whiff wigs of the clerks to the House, or the fact that the mace was knocked up by the design department out of two plant pots.

The language and procedure are authentic. "Honourable Members" engage in just the right degree of barracking; main speakers give way to interventions (or not).

The subtleties are there too - a member not only addresses the opposing side but half turns for support to the members on his or her own side, making a sardonic point that raises cheers of support; on the backbenches one of the smaller of the Year 7 pupils lolls languidly in his seat like a veteran.

The main speakers are excellent. Tracy Pugh's performance as Prime Minister is combative - one of the competition judges compared her to Margaret Thatcher.

In one exchange, a backbencher, Adelle Horne, challenges her on the fact that Toyota is expanding in France rather than in Britain, raising her voice and turning for support as she reaches triumphant crescendo. "Because they no longer trust this government!" she cries, borne up on a chorus of "Hear-hear".

There is no shortage of facts and figures - employment statistics, percentages, historical references are all hurled into the questions and debate. All are authentic, says Mr Curran. "Nothing is invented. The pupils research it all from newspaper cuttings."

The curricular possibilities of this kind of work are endless, and can involve virtually all the main departments in the school.

At St Michael's, the leading roles - Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, main debate speakers - are allocated by audition, usually to senior pupils. Each then takes the role and develops it, treating it, in effect, as a part in a dramatic performance.

The main body of "The House" is provided by 190 Year 7 pupils. "It gives us the chance," says Mr Curran, "to teach them about the traditions - about the Speaker's procession, and so on. Year 7 have to do the English Civil War in their history lessons, and the work they do on Parliament for the competition really helps with their understanding of the issues."

St Michael's has won the competition two years running - a considerable achievement for this 11-16 school, against formidable opponents, many of them sixth-formers. The school has an open but orderly atmosphere, and GCSE results are above local and national averages, with steady improvement over recent years. Ofsted reported "an orderly and disciplined community".

The excellent relationships between staff and pupils are partly explained by the fact that seven of the school's teachers are former pupils. Gerry Armstrong, head of Year 11, for example, came as a probation teacher in 1965 ("Just before England won the World Cup"). The headteacher, Tony Maxwell, is also something of a a St Michael's veteran, having arrived from college in 1966 and worked his way up to become head three years ago.

The mid-Sixties are widely touted as the template for Blair's Britain: Soho was swinging, the technological revolution was under way, the landed gentry were retiring reluctantly to their grouse moors - and young people had a new-found faith in the dynamism of parliamentary politics. In Cleveland that faith seems to be returning.

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