The European Parliament doesn't exactly welcome young visitors with open arms. But it's time it did, says Carolyn O'Grady. With the centre of Brussels now only three hours away from London, how easy or desirable is it for children to make that trip for a glimpse of the European Union's institutions?
Theoretically, nothing can stop schools visiting the European Parliament. They can organise briefings and tours in Brussels (where committee meetings are held) or Strasbourg (where the Parliament's monthly plenary sessions are held) through their MEP, the UK European Parliament Office or the European Parliament's visitors' service.
The tour lasts about two hours and consists of a briefing on how the Parliament runs and where it fits into EU institutions; a talk from a MEP, a visit to the Parliament chamber and a committee meeting.
In reality, however, school visitors are low on the European Parliament's list of priorities. Precedence is given to what Niall O'Neill, head of the visitors' service, calls "opinion multipliers, for example, 30 members of the local chamber of commerce or party activists". Opinion-makers and multipliers of tomorrow are almost discouraged. Little is done to promote the trips.
"Brussels doesn't honestly go out of its way to educate young visitors, " says Roger Bowdery, of Dunraven secondary school, a grant-maintained school in the London borough of Lambeth. It took 60 14 to 15-year-olds on a day trip to Brussels. Roger Bowdery said not much information was directed at that age group.
But the Euroscola days are promoted enthusiastically. About 500 young Europeans spend a day debating issues in Strasbourg. Some debates are organised in Brussels. The European Parliament often funds schools attending Euroscola.
These trips are interesting. Paul Wood, 17, a pupil from Hereford sixth form college, was enthusiastic. "Hereford sometimes seems a bit remote from the action in Europe, but we lived and breathed it during our visit and returned home with a clearer focus of what the EU had to offer young people."
Debates centred on current affairs, including environmental protection. Among the declarations of the working parties was one condemning the French nuclear tests. The four-day trip also took in a visit to Brasserie Kronenbourg, the giant beer-making factory.
But, Euroscola, as Niall O'Neill emphasises, is "more oriented towards A-level students doing politics and languages than vocational students". Pupils must have at least one other European language.
So what about those younger or less academic pupils who also want a taste of the action? Niall O'Neill finds many school parties appear to be bored. But, though schools like Dunraven might have found Brussels' attitude disappointing, the pupils learned a lot, said Roger Bowdery. "We tend to think of youth as being fairly indifferent to the European Community, but they seemed very interested."
Like many schools, Dunraven went through their MEP, who was helpful and arranged for Glenys Kinnock to give a talk on the workings of the EC, focusing on the role of the EC in environmental control - "a good one with young people".
Another school that has shown that even young children can show interest is Quinta county primary school in Congleton, Cheshire, which organised the trip as part of a four-day tour.
The visit to the European Parliament, rather than being the serious educational leavening which sold the trip to parents, turned out to be the high spot, says Pat McDonnell, the teacher in charge.
She lists two vital ingredients for success. First, the school had prepared the pupils. "They wouldn't have got much out of it if we'd taken them cold, " she says. They impressed officials with questions like, "We've heard Hungary will be the next new member, is this so?" Second, they had an energetic local MEP, Mike Tappin, who arranged an appropriate programme for them. The third ingredient, which she didn't mention, was a very energetic teacher.
The Quinta party went by ferry to Blankenberge in Belgium, where they stayed in a modest hotel. At the Parliament, Tappin had organised short talks on subjects calculated to appeal to a Year 6 audience, including animal welfare.
They saw the Parliament visitors' gallery. They then listened to a debate in a committee room, putting on headphones to get the translations and flicking through the channels to hear other languages.
Quinta's experience illustrates that with preparation, a trip to the European Parliament can be what Pat McDonnell describes as "as a fantastic experience".
Dunraven and Quinta were blessed with MEPs who were enthusiastic about education. For those who aren't, Brussels could do more. Assuming that young children will be uninterested is likely to prove a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Schools and the European Parliament visitors' service need to meet each other half way.
Niall O'Neill, European Parliament, Rue Belliard, 97-113 B 1040, Bruxelles, Belgium. Tel: 00322 2843841. Applications to take part in Euroscola to: L'Antenne du Parlement Europeen, UP l024F, F-670670. Strasbourg Cedex. UK European Parliament Office, 2 Queen Anne's Gate, London SWlH 9AA. Tel: 0171 227 4300.