Passion for politics

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Meeting local politicians can get pupils fired with enthusiasm about important issues. Jennifer Farrar reports on a gifted and talented project in London

As Labour MP for Tooting, Sadiq Khan is used to dealing with journalists.

This press call, however, is different; he sits in a south London school library amid a cluster of serious-faced teenagers wearing orange t-shirts and brandishing notepads and digital cameras. "How does Britain benefit from immigration?" asks one of the orange team, while her colleague prepares the camera for another shot. "What should be done to improve the public's confidence in transport after the London bombings?" enquires another, once Sadiq Khan has paused for breath and a slug of coffee.

Questions on global warming, school sports and financial incentives for secondary students follow in quick succession.

In classrooms across the playground, a team of students in black t-shirts analyse crime figures released by the government that morning. The red group have already run their ideas for educational reform past Justine Greening, Conservative MP for Putney.

In the corridor, the khaki team record the closing scenes for their short film on transport. With a final deadline looming, the tension is palpable, but students at the annual Wandsworth Gifted and Talented Conference are now used to working under such pressure. They appear to thrive on it.

More than 100 high-achieving key stage 3 students, drawn from five of the borough's secondary schools - Southfields Community College, which is hosting the event, Salesian College, John Paul II, Battersea Technology College and Eliot School - participate in the three-day conference. This year, the theme is the General Election. Each of the 10 teams is given an area to research, such as crime, defence or the environment, and must complete a variety of tasks. For the final presentations, they produce doubled-sided display boards exploring their issue and outlining how they feel it should be tackled.

Teams must also film a political broadcast and create a website, and their leaders (or lead ministers, as they are known) deliver a persuasive one-minute speech to an audience of MPs, parents and peers using rhetorical skills gleaned from undergraduate members of the English Speaking Union.

Sarah Gray, a history advanced skills teacher and Southfields' gifted and talented co-ordinator, has been involved with the conference since its inception. "We want the students to engage with the issues raised during the election and to think about how they affect them today and in the future," she says. "They are not told what to think; we want them to make up their own minds."

Students are given access to the technical resources of the Wandsworth City Learning Centre during the three days and receive training on filming, photography, editing and website construction. "One of our aims is to give the pupils the opportunity to work in ways that they don't get to at school," adds Sarah Gray.

Alex Purssey, gifted and talented co-ordinator for Wandsworth agrees: "The students are not in a comfortable learning environment but they have a fantastic three days, producing high-quality work. The fact that they are also exposed to new ways of learning, issues and positive role models also makes it an incredibly valuable experience."

Representatives from six parties, including four MPs, are not only quizzed on their views but have to explain their implications, raising the students' awareness of how politics works. It is clear that the politicians are impressed, and the children are keen to engage with them. Sadiq Khan, who was born nearby and and went to school in the area, is particularly popular.

As the assembly hall fills up for the final presentations, the students grow nervous. The prize of a guided tour of the House of Commons is at stake, and each team is now passionate about their issue. "This country needs immigration - we are one nation," states the orange team's lead minister solemnly. "Do you agree that everyone has the right to a good life?" she asks. The audience hold up their voting cards to register their vote - green if they agree, red for disagree. Almost every side shows green. The orange team's recommendation is included in the concluding conference manifesto.The heather team suggests paying secondary school students to attend because it will "improve behaviour and attendance". This goes down a storm with the pupils, although some of the adults are not so sure.

All of the proposals are devised by the students though each team is guided by a teacher to ensure the brief is kept to. The bond between pupils and supervisor is clear; the one team to have a change of staff midway is the only group to have their recommendation voted down by the others.

The event is a success in the eyes of teachers, politicians and pupils.

Martin Linton, Battersea's Labour MP, urges the children to use their power to influence the future. A Year 8 Southfields' student says he has enjoyed the high-pressure environment and has learned a lot about money. "It's a hard topic and not something people of my age think about," he says. "But it's important to learn about these things so that we can deal with them when we get older."

At the start of the event Alex Purssey asks the students how they feel about politics. They respond by holding up red cards. Repeating the question at the end of the three days, he is met with a sea of green.


* School councils should be given more power.

* Global warming is the biggest threat to the environment.

* Safety is the biggest priority for users of public transport.

* The police should put a greater emphasis on crime prevention.

* More money should be spent on defending our country from the inside.

* Young people should have free access to arts and sport in their communities.

* Smoking should be banned in public places.

* EMA (education maintenance allowance) should be offered to key stage 4 pupils to encourage good behaviour and standards.

* Immigration is essential - everyone has the right to a good life.

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