That's the way to do it: Punch and Judy politics hits back hard

30th April 2010 at 01:00
When pupils from Alva Academy set up a debate involving the four main parties, the fiery knockabout kept an audience of youngsters gripped

Cutting remarks slice through the air. Polemics are met with disdainful chuckles. Panel members scrap for the moral high ground. This is old-school political jousting - and the audience are on the edge of their seats.

Voters are tired of "Punch and Judy politics". Or so goes the truism often trotted out as the reason why youngsters are turned off by party politics, with fewer than 40 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voting at the 2001 and 2005 general elections.

But a modern studies conference organised by Alva Academy pupils turned that idea on its head. They invited politicians from Scotland's main parties to debate a range of issues. When pupils spoke to The TESS afterwards, their political juices were flowing - precisely because punches were not pulled.

The setting is Stirling University and pupils and teachers from several schools are present. It starts like a lecture, with presentations from the university's Peter Lynch and Sharon Wright on election systems and social inequality. Ears perk up at Dr Wright's revelation that it would cost only pound;3 billion a year to send every child in the world to school; and that child poverty is more than twice as prevalent in the UK as the Czech Republic.

But the audience is more animated when the politicians enter. The panel includes Skills and Lifelong Learning Minister Keith Brown, SNP; Lib Dem MEP George Lyon; and Labour MP for Stirling Anne McGuire. Environmental activist Walter Attwood is a late stand-in for Green MSP Robin Harper, but Gerald Michaluk, the Tory candidate for Ochil and South Perthshire, is a no-show.

The debate starts gently with a question on climate change. Panel members offer vague answers that are unlikely to offend.

But instincts kick in with a question on how Europe could influence environmental policies in the United States, India and China. Mr Brown has a dig at the Labour Government, claiming the UK is not taken seriously by the US because it is "willing to accept what it's told". Mrs McGuire cuts across him to object and the debate gets more heated.

Mr Lyon adds to the knockabout, accusing Labour and the Tories of being as similar as "Tweedledum and Tweedledee". The trading of political insults catches the pupils unawares. "Wooo!" hoots one gaggle of teenagers when Mr Lyon lands another blow.

"It's good to see that the cosy niceness is beginning to disappear," says TESS columnist and education professor Walter Humes, who has the David Dimbleby role.

The atmosphere is stoked up further when the panel debates whether it's acceptable for pressure groups to break the law. Mr Brown admits he has done so and been fined: he refused to pay the poll tax and the Skye Bridge toll.

Mr Lyon warns that "society will break down" if the rule of law is not observed. The former president of the National Farmers' Union recalls trying to block Irish imports at Stranraer, "but we were very careful not to break the law". Mrs McGuire thinks "Keith has muddied the waters slightly" and says democracy offers many ways to voice opposition.

Mr Brown launches into a speech about the suffragettes and Rosa Parks, and their willingness to break the law in a supposed democracy. A stony-faced Mrs McGuire shakes her head.

"I was surprised that it got as lively," says one of the Alva Academy organisers, 17-year-old Shannon Irvine, who admired how Mrs McGuire "stuck up for herself". The heated debate set off arguments among her schoolmates, she says: "You could see the divide and why they're in different parties."

Rachel Robertson, 16, was struck by Mr Lyon's performance. She had assumed a Lib Dem would be a "bit more quiet and reserved". Anne McGuire performed well, she thinks, but she's not sure whether it was the Labour party she found herself liking, or this particular MP.

Head girl Fernanda Almanza, 18, was intrigued to see that politicians didn't have to toe the party line. She had been a "bit sceptical" about climate change, but the panel's views have persuaded her to look into the issue more deeply.

She is a big fan of modern studies, having moved to Scotland a few years ago from Mexico, where there is no equivalent subject. "It's something that has an impact on what you do in everyday life," she says.

Fernanda, who was planning to vote either Tory or Lib Dem, thinks politics should play a bigger role in the curriculum. "We learn at events like this, but we also get encouraged to speak," she says. "Education should be about teaching us - but also about encouraging us to have personal opinions."

henry.hepburn@tes.co.uk.

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