The pupils have spoken

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
As the nation went to the polls yesterday, a group of primary schoolchildren was casting votes in an exercise that has brought democracy to the classrooms of south-west London.

If Westminster is the mother of all parliaments, down the river at Richmond upon Thames is its offspring - a three-year-old that has given junior schoolchildren a little local authority.

Richmond's pupil parliament is more than a token talking shop. Its MPPs - one boy and one girl member of the pupil parliament for each of the 22 participating schools - have had a small but significant impact on council affairs.

Their successful campaigns have brought first-aid teaching to schools, contributed to the borough's anti-racist and anti-bullying policies, and even saved an area of rainforest the size of Richmond.

The corridors of Darell School show the signs of weeks of intensive electioneering - small, colourful posters competing

for space and the votes of the school's pupils.

But the red, blue and orange of mainstream politics have no place here. This election is fought on single issues, where grassroots politics means clearing up the local park, and pollution, animal welfare and anti-smoking are the hotly debated topics.

As pupil candidates delivered their speeches to polite applause in the school hall, it was clear that in-fighting and dirty tricks had no place in this campaign, and predicting the result would be a pollster's nightmare. Confusingly, some candidates wore several stickers, supporting their friends and rivals.

Teacher Lindsay Ryan has had to remind the electorate that policies matter more than personalities. "It's difficult to remember what the candidates are campaigning for," she told them. "But you have to listen and think about it - rather than just vote for your friends."

Seven-year-old Alice Pearse started proceedings with an impassioned plea to tidy up the local "rec". She said: "I go there nearly every day to play on the swings and see-saw with my friends. There's only one thing that spoils our beautiful park - graffiti."

Anti-smoking candidate Kit, one of only two boys among the 11 candidates, already had the hang of the snappy slogan. "A vote for me is a vote for health," he suggested. Like several others, he had researched the subject and came up with facts and figures to support his argument.

Pupils from Year 2 upwards have been involved in the elections. "Many of them already understand the idea of voting for people because we have a school council," says Lindsay Ryan. "But for the pupil parliament they have campaign committees and a few pounds to spend on posters and photocopying. The candidates get the chance to speak in front of an audience and you can see their confidence build. It's very exciting for them."

The elections are fun, but there is a serious side to their appeals. Alice's anti-graffiti stance stems from the time somebody desecrated her grandad's grave. And 10-year-old Nadine, a veteran of two previous campaigns, and runner-up last year, decided to speak out against racism after she was "called nasty names" on her way home.

Richmond borough council takes the children seriously too. "When we first started, we thought it would be an educational exercise to teach children how democracy works," explains councillor Gita Rae of Richmond education committee. "Then we realised this was a good way of hearing the views of primary pupils and showing them they could influence the council. Their views feed into the council, and the council takes notice."

Once the votes have been counted, the MPPs are invited to the town hall for a day. A pupil mayor is elected, who wears a chain of office and sits next to the real mayor. Each MPP is allocated #163;5 for each vote won and, together with children from other schools who were elected on similar issues, they form alliances to put proposals before the council on how best to spend the money.

"This is beginning to be a body which actually has some clout," says John Bartholomew, one of Richmond's senior primary inspectors and the parliament's convenor. He points to a booklet on pet care, produced by a local vet at the children's request, and a nursery garden established to provide trees for Richmond's schools, as further examples of the scheme's achievements.

"It's an opportunity for them to learn about citizenship and to take part in a real democratic process. " He says local councils ignore the views of younger citizens at their peril. "Ten and 11-year-olds have much to offer. I never cease to be astonished by the quality of their speeches."

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