Vote of confidence

12th September 2003 at 01:00
The Youth Parliament competition is back for another round, reports Nic Barnard

Order, order! After an enforced absence, the Citizenship Foundation's celebrated Youth Parliament competition is back and has even spawned its own press gallery. The annual challenge to secondary schools to stage their own Prime Minister's Questions and debate a mock Bill is joined this year by a political journalism section. Given the event's well-known requirement for realism, jackets and ties will presumably be compulsory, if only for the boys.

The YP competition was dropped last year due to a lack of funding, but with new sponsors on board, schools are invited to submit a 20-minute video of pupils demonstrating that they're sharper, cleverer, funnier and more serious than the people who run the country. There's even a prize for best spin-doctor. Entry is no longer restricted to schools; youth groups and other informal teams will be able to enter. And Scotland will have its own competition, with students invited to model the new Scottish Parliament, with MSPs, first minister and presiding officer. Scottish winners will be invited to a reception at Holyrood - assuming the much delayed and over-budget building is finished. Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland competitions are expected to follow.

Part of the event's appeal has always been that the young politicians must follow the form of the real thing, complete with despatch box and archaic traditions. All questions go through the Speaker, the Ayes go to the right, Joe Smith becomes "the Honourable Member" and no one is called a liar, even if they claim the local primary has weapons of mass destruction ready to fire in 45 minutes. PMQs and mock Bills must be plausible.

With the new citizenship curriculum embedding itself in the timetable, the event is likely to be more popular than ever. When the Heathland School in Hounslow, west London, won third prize two years ago, it was for an after-school project for Years 9 and 10. This year it's likely to be incorporated into PSHE classes for every year in the school. Gifted and Talented co-ordinator Liz Atwell said taking part seemed to give students a real understanding of how politics works. "It's always amazed me how little children know about politics, in every school I've taught in. They never seem to watch the news like I used to at that age," she says. "They've got quite strong opinions on what's going on in the world, be it the congestion charge or the war in Iraq, but they don't seem to have an interest in the procedure behind it."

The Heathland's students aren't seriously considering careers in politics (yet), but they're an ambitious bunch. "If you want to be a lawyer, it helps with your debating and language," says Maryam Shahid, 14. "And now we know how laws are formed and the stages they go through," adds Dhara Patel, 15.

Judges can expect a few debates and PMQs on Iraq. It's a hot topic at the ethnically diverse Heathland, whose numbers include Iraqi refugees. But other issues hit close to home in Hounslow, just 10 minutes from Heathrow.

At Kyle Academy in Ayr, a regional winner last year, students considered smoking bans, closed-circuit TV and the Euro before settling on identity cards for their mock Bill. Teacher Carolyn Miller says her students might be "slightly cynical" about politics and politicians, "but they're not apathetic".

So why are young people so disengaged from politics? The Heathland's students suggest that many feel powerless and talk about lowering the voting age to 16. Then there's the lack of black and Asian faces on those green benches. "We're a multi-cultural society now," says Rosy Chirayath, 15. "Times have changed, but I don't think the government reflects what's happening."

The Foundation will be watching closely to see how many Scottish schools follow the Holyrood model. Last time, Kyle students opted for Westminster because of its inherent drama. "Holyrood was set up to be more consensual, less adversarial," says Carolyn Miller. "Westminster is more exciting to watch. People getting a bit out of order - that doesn't happen in the Scottish Parliament. They just turn their microphones off."

Holyrood's education unit is giving the competition enthusiastic backing.

Politicians everywhere like it - officially because it promotes democracy and political awareness and so on, but unofficially because it seems to give young people a grudging respect for what they do.

The Heathland's Dhara Pritpal says being PM was tough work. "You have to answer everything and everybody blames you. Heathrow, the filthy conditions in hospitals." But he is a natural politician: "I told them that something would be done," he says. Note he didn't say exactly what. Tony Blair watch out.

Youth Parliament competition Tel: 020 7367 0523

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