Why playing politics is a serious business

17th April 2015 at 01:00
With the general election only weeks away, give pupils a taste of campaign fever that will last a lifetime by staging a mock election

The perception is that young people are disengaged from politics. Many would concede that plenty of students get involved in single-issue campaigns - to save the environment, for example, or to axe tuition fees. Young feminist groups, too, are mushrooming in schools. But involvement in mainstream party politicking seems to be in terminal decline.

So setting up a classroom debate to decide what subjects politicians should be addressing to gain the attention and respect of this demographic is a valuable exercise.

You will find that most students tend to conclude that a range of issues are important to them, not all of which are easily categorisable as "youth issues". The problem is not whether politicians specifically target "young people", they say, but has more to do with the presentation and inaccessibility of mainstream politics.

One way we can tackle this in schools is by exposing students to the realities of party politics in an accessible and approachable fashion, through staging a "mock" general election.

At Yarm School we have run elections like these for many years. What can begin as something rather tongue-in-cheek - an almost pantomime-like approach to assuming the roles of real politicians - can soon morph into an experience with its own momentum.

The election is announced

Before long, students are driven by friendly competition within their peer group and are scouring party manifestos, desperate to find the points that will secure one-upmanship in debates.

Local MPs or candidates can be most obliging in providing the paraphernalia, such as rosettes and posters, that add colour to a school election campaign. This also adds to the excitement and rivalry as students vie to exploit their newly found contacts in "real politics".

There is undoubtedly an unpredictability to the event, as well as a certain nervousness about how far it will take off. Will the candidates enter into the spirit of their roles? Will they be sufficiently prepared to make a debate or husting worthwhile to an audience? Typically, character and competition kick in to create an energetic and engaging experience for students throughout all year groups.

The party candidates or leaders are self-selected from among the more senior pupils. They then build teams taken from different year groups - this is essential for establishing the broad support needed to triumph in the eventual vote, and incidentally provides a great opportunity for vertical mixing.

This year we have candidates representing the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP and Green parties, as well as one pupil desperate to be the voice for Yorkshire First.

On a previous occasion we had an "anarchist" who, though not a candidate, spent many lunchtimes discussing the futility of parliamentary politics with groups of pupils and encouraged a significant amount of ballot paper spoiling. Deemed a spoilsport by some, he arguably provided an extra dimension to the whole undertaking and prompted meaningful conversations about the value of participation.

This year's token anarchist is more of the armchair variety: he attends all the events, albeit with periodic grunts and grumbles, and stages seemingly defiant walkouts (although only so he can attend his creative writing class in another part of the school).

On the campaign trail

Early in the 2015 campaign, the candidates set up a husting during an assembly at a local junior school. They gave a "soapbox" one-minute introduction to their parties, before being exposed to surprisingly insightful questions from their young audience. The experience of presenting and pitching required the students to develop soft skills that most were unfamiliar with. Our Green candidate, left reeling after three consecutive questions from the crowd, later suggested that he was floundering and "felt like a politician!"

Back at the senior school, we organised a number of lunchtime events where the candidates addressed questions from the audience on a range of policy areas, including immigration, the NHS, the economy, defence and security, transport and the environment. These sessions focused everyone's minds: the candidates had to do their homework beforehand and so did the audience. The ensuing exchanges were insightful and meaningful, and demonstrated a good level of knowledge.

At the ballot box

The election itself took place over the course of one day just before the Easter holidays. A local returning officer was generous and cooperative in supplying authentic ballot boxes and signage. All members of the school community - pupils, teachers and support staff - were eligible to vote. Although we maintained the principle of the secret ballot, colour-coded ballot papers for individual year groups allowed for some interesting post-results analysis.

The whole exercise had many benefits, the most impressive of which was the vertical mixing as candidates mingled with younger pupils to explain - or more often defend - their policies.

The process has unwittingly drawn pupils into the realm of civic engagement, too, albeit in an arena that feels safe and secure. And of course it has enabled some pupils to find their voices for the first time: they discover that the cut-and-thrust of debate can be not just energising but something they may build on in their choice of subjects or even careers. Social confidence and a have-a-go mentality are skills that go beyond the classroom into the world outside.

Such an enterprise inevitably has its challenges: pupils becoming overly immersed in their own soundbites, the potential for sabotage of rivals' posters, even inventive forms of bribery to secure votes. But then again, perhaps this mirrors modern party politics more than we might like to admit.

Stephen Edwards is head of politics at Yarm School in North East England

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