Question time

13th April 2007 at 01:00
From disorderly conduct to global warming, such issues are keeping politicians on their toes as part of the MSPs in Schools programme

IT WASN'T the usual type of hustings and the audience was younger than your average voter, but last term the MSPs in Schools programme gave several politicians an excellent preparation for this month's election campaign.

In Portmoak Primary in Kinnesswood, Kinross, three MSPs were grilled by classes in the upper school. Questions ranged from one girl wanting to know what you would have to do to get thrown out of the debating chamber (George Reid, the presiding officer and their local MSP, said you would have to be "really rather naughty and disorderly") to the more serious topic of global warming.

In the P5-6 classroom, the MSPs were shown a PowerPoint presentation the pupils had created about outdoor learning and why they liked it so much.

Then the children quizzed them about their jobs.

They wanted to know whether the politicians believed the voting age should be lowered to 16. The unanimous verdict from the MSPs was yes, because you could get married, join the Army and pay tax at that age.

Mr Reid told the children he was very proud of the Scottish Parliament.

"Westminster came together in the 19th century," he said. "It's very grand, it's set apart from the people. The Scottish Parliament is not very grand, it's very accessible, the public can come in and see the parliament working. The parliament belongs to the people.

"In Holyrood, 40 per cent of ministers are women - far more than at Westminster. It's family- friendly, and so it should be."

But the best thing about politics, he concluded, was the "small things that made a real difference to people's lives, like helping an old lady who had been in great pain for a long time because she couldn't get her leg fixed".

Next door, in Helen Simpson's P4-5 class, the topic was the benefits of small classes. The children performed a mock news report in which a boy interviewed pupils and teachers about why they liked small classes, and asked an MSP if he would raise the issue in parliament. The real MSPs watched with a smile and gave their own comments.

"What can the Scottish Parliament do for children?" asked one pupil.

The most important thing was education, said Mr Reid: "We're living in a big global world, in an age where the pace of change is so fast. We have to think about what sort of education you're getting, because you are the future adults who'll be running the country."

Andrew Arbuckle, the Lib Dem list MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, warned the children against apathy and appealed to them to engage in politics.

"If you want to change things, you really have to get into politics," he said. "A lesson for everybody is: if you see something you don't like, do something about it."

One little girl asked them: "If you could wave a magic wand and change one law, what would it be?"

Not surprisingly, Bruce Crawford, the SNP regional member for Mid Scotland and Fife, believed Scotland should be able to "make its own decisions, its own mistakes and celebrate its own successes".

Asked about the most important debate they had taken part in, Mr Crawford said it was arguing against the war in Iraq and thinking about climate change and the environment. Mr Arbuckle thought the banning of smoking in public places was a major coup for Scotland. "The one aim we have in common," he said, "is to make Scotland a better place, and that is a great privilege."

In Lindsay Kettles's P7 class, the pupils focused on renewable energy and wind power in particular, because it was a topical issue in the area. The pupils staged a mock council meeting with lots of statistics about global warming. The majority were in favour of wind farms and thought the nation needed to concentrate on renewables and energy saving.

The MSPs agreed that Scotland should harness its vast resources of renewable energy. This, said Mr Reid, was the direction the Scottish Parliament wished to take: concentrating on renewables, while Eng-land was pushing nuclear power.

The aim of the MSPs in Schools programme is to engage young people in politics, demystify the Scottish Parliament, educate children about its work and build links between children and the people who represent them, as well as giving MSPs access to the views of young people.

It has been designed to meet citizenship learning outcomes, particularly knowledge and understanding, skills and active participatory learning. "You hope that in due course they will vote," said Mr Arbuckle. "They are the future of Scotland."

For George Reid, the programme was about listening to children and engaging them in the democratic process.

"I am enormously enthused by them," he added. "The sheer enthusiasm of the primary groups is wonderful. The S1-3 group tend to be a wee bit reluctant, then you've got S4-6 asking really polished, probing questions. The quality of debating among some of the older pupils is staggering."


The MSPs in Schools programme has been running since January 2005. The free programme for primaries and secondaries is organised by the Scottish Parliament's outreach services in partnership with Hansard Society Scotland, Learning and Teaching Scotland, the Scottish Executive and the Electoral Commission.

After an introductory session during which a member of the parliament's outreach team visits the school to outline to the children how the parliament works, three local MSPs, representing different political parties, visit the school to talk to pupils and answer their questions.

MSPs have visited schools in 30 out of 32 local authorities. In 2005-06, 70 MSPs visited 95 classes in 58 schools. During the current session, 105 schools and 225 classes have been visited, and 108 out of 129 MSPs have taken part.

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