TV debate is a question of class

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
The Royal High in Edinburgh is the only school in Scotland to reach the final stages of the BBC's Question Time Challenge

The BBC's Question Time will never have known an audience quite like this. The bulk of them are teenagers. Some are docile, quietly listening to their iPods or staring transfixed at their mobile phones. But most twitch in their chairs, chatting one minute, laughing the next, haranguing the person in front and changing seats. Every so often, one adolescent will snatch a backwards glance at the rows of seats behind and, like a room full of meerkats, everybody else strains to see what's going on.

Why so frenetic? They are excited. The Royal High in Edinburgh is one of 15 UK schools - and the only one in Scotland - to get through to the final stages of the BBC's Schools Question Time Challenge.

S4 pupils at the school have suggested changes to the programme's format and held a debate on Scottish independence, but this is the real test: staging their own version of the show.

If they are among the top four teams, come the summer, they will be invited to produce an episode of Question Time in London at BBC studios.

On the Royal High's panel this evening will be their very own Harmandeep Shetra, who is in S5; Margaret Smith MSP; Robin Harper MSP; Margo MacDonald MSP; and Scottish Youth Parliament chair Derek Couper. But the star attraction - for the pupils at least - is Greg McHugh, who plays Gary in the BBC comedy series Gary Tank Commander.

However, it is Margo MacDonald's opinions that S4 pupil Vicky Powell is keen to hear.

"When we met her on a trip to the Scottish Parliament, she was really interesting and had lots of great ideas," she says.

Vicky and Nick Jones are among the 28 Standard grade modern studies pupils responsible for pulling the event together, under the watchful eye of their teacher, Jenny Gilruth.

Vicky will be responsible for sound quality and Nick is a member of the film crew. Both watched Question Time before getting involved in the competition and mention BNP leader Nick Griffin's controversial appearance on the programme. This competition has brought politics closer to them, they feel.

Nick says: "This has allowed us to see politics on a more personal level. We've been able to get our questions answered."

Vicky adds: "Thinking of questions has meant we've had to get more involved in what's happening in the world and keep up with the news."

According to Ms Gilruth, the competition has been a great way of encouraging political literacy and greater participation in the political process.

Finally, it is time for the fidgeting to stop, as the familiar Question Time theme music reverberates off the walls of the hall. The first question is fired from the audience; it's about assisted suicide.

Ms MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson's and has published a right to die bill, kicks off the debate. She is supported in her views by the Green Party's Mr Harper, who helps get things off to a cheery start.

"Every single person in this hall is going to die," he says.

"But not tonight," the headteacher and chair, Jane Frith, quickly chips in, lest panic ensues.

Scotland needs to shed the medieval idea that death is scary and bad, continues Mr Harper. It is inevitable, he points out. He will be supporting Ms MacDonald's bill, in the hope that Scotland might become one of the first countries to pass "some decent legislation based on straightforward, humane ways to allow people to end their lives".

The next question relates to Lothians MSP Lord George Foulkes's call for independent schools to come under state control.

Harmandeep sees no need for private schools. Education should be the same for everyone, regardless of what their parents earn, she says.

Mr McHugh is not against private schools (although why their pupils must be picked up in 4x4s is beyond him). As a former pupil of Edinburgh's St Thomas of Aquin's High, his bugbear is faith schools.

"I'd rather be learning a language or doing sport than having some religious point shoved down my throat," he says.

It is the charitable status of independent schools that irks Ms MacDonald. "I don't care how many swimming pools they have got, that they share with the less fortunate," she says.

Raising the drinking age and whether council tax should remain frozen are also tackled head-on by the panel and the hour flies by.

Afterwards Niamh Joyce, who is in S4, declares herself "very impressed".

"I thought the topics they were talking about were really interesting and controversial, and I thought the points they made were relevant. I agreed with a lot of what was said," she says. "I actually thought it was quite good and the production values were quite high, considering it's a school."

Julie Mackenzie, also S4, seems uncomfortable that private schools took a bit of a bashing. She found the panel's views on education "interesting". "Some of my best friends are from private schools and they are among the kindest, most generous people I've ever met," she says.

The integration of private-school pupils into the state sector may one day be possible but not yet, she believes. "There are far too many people in private schools in Edinburgh to be able to accommodate them all," she points out.

The Schools Question Time Challenge aims to encourage young people to become active and involved. Mission accomplished at the Royal High.

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