Project sheds light on 'shadowy' politics

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Parliament; exciting, stimulating debate or droning middle-aged bores? Pupils were surprised

Original paper headline: Three-day project sheds light on `shadowy' politics

Skinny jeans, Converse trainers, a shock of dyed hair: the Scottish Parliament's finance committee has had a make-over.

Pupils from five Glasgow secondary schools have taken charge of the country's coffers, in one of the most ambitious projects from the parliament's education service.

Rather than the more typical one-day visit, the 25 young people have become immersed in the parliament for three days. They will fix their own mock budget, before seeing how the real thing works.

The knockabout antics of First Minister's Questions are pupils' highlight of day one, during which many preconceptions are punctured.

"We always think of parliament as for older people," says Hillhead High's Sadia Parveen, 17, who is not alone in having conjured up an image of middle-aged bores droning through mind-numbing political minutiae. The vitality of FMQs was the catalyst in changing Sadia's mindset: "We can get more involved - if we want to."

Not everyone is so impressed by the finger-jabbing of Alex Salmond, Iain Gray et al. "It was really interesting, but they all act like children," says Sarah Donnachie, 17, of Hyndland Secondary. "Anything anyone says - you're completely struck down."

Day two sees the pupils become the finance committee, initially split into small groups to discuss funding priorities. On the table are proposals for university grants, affordable homes, drug rehabilitation, community penalties for offenders, and free bus and rail travel for under-18s. Some schemes cost far more than others, and hard decisions need to be made.

There are raised voices and enervated gesticulations in one group, over the relative merits of community service and prison. At times, personal prejudices - drug users will inevitably relapse, so what's the point of rehab? - are trumping careful consideration of background facts. Andrew Welsh, convener of the real finance committee, stops by to listen in. He gently reminds pupils to provide evidence in support of their arguments.

The groups come together to make a final decision. Housing, rehab and community service make it into the budget, but education and transport miss out. There is a knowing chuckle from Mr Welsh, who predicts some damning headlines.

Hillhead High's Rebecca Campbell, 17, admits she was not overly enthused by the prospect of visiting parliament. After setting the budget, however, she has decided it is "a lot more interesting" than expected, because she has "found out what MPs and MSPs actually do".

Three days later, on one of its forays outside Edinburgh, the real finance committee meets in Glasgow City Chambers. The final part of the three-day programme is the chance to observe what happens when MSPs quiz Finance Secretary John Swinney (pictured front row, centre) over government budget priorities.

The committee sits in front of a 10-foot marble fireplace, while a hulking chandelier gives off a dull backroom glow. The stiff atmosphere is hard to get to grips with after the vigour of the first two days; one boy tells friends afterwards that he spent the whole two hours trying to avoid clearing his throat because he didn't feel he could in such a setting.

Esoteric arguments and acronyms are being bandied about and, even though the education service has tried hard to demystify things in an information sheet, parliamentary clerk Allan Campbell admits afterwards that the meeting was "quite an extreme one".

"Being honest, I didn't get anything out of it - it was just too long," says Rebecca, although not everyone feels the same.

Cleveden Secondary's Halliki Kreinin, 17, was intrigued to get behind the newspaper headlines and hear the rationale for ditching the Glasgow Airport rail link. She found the committee "a lot more grown-up" than FMQs.

While nonplussed by the lack of women on the committee - sole female member Linda Fabiani is absent - Halliki has been impressed by parliamentary business. She used to live in Hungary, which she believes has suffered from hundreds of years of political corruption and nepotism, and finds the Scottish Parliament much more open.

Even so, and despite wishing to study politics at university, she has no desire to become a politician: "I think they get a very hard press - you get accused of everything."

"I found it interesting towards the end," says Sarah Donnachie, the arcane preliminaries of committee having made way for discussion of controversial issues. She was more impressed, once she "tuned into it", with the quiet industry of committee business than the "theatre and drama" of FMQs.

The three-day project has shed light on an institution that, for Sarah, was previously "all a bit vague and shadowy".

She says: "I learned how open parliament is. How easy it is to get involved."

Your parliament

The three-day parliamentary project is part of a wider programme for schools, including Visit Your Parliament and Your Parliament in Your School, continuing professional development, resources and online games.

Young debaters celebrated St Andrew's Day at the Parliament on Monday, with pupils from 20 schools teaming up with students from seven universities in a Homecoming debating championship. Winners: Racheal McLellan, High School of Dundee, and John McKee, Glasgow University. Best school speaker: Laura Hudson, Glasgow Academy. Best contribution from the floor: Fraser Johnston, Wallace High, Stirling.

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