An Internet project that extends the virtual franchise to primary school pupils is up and running
The General Election may be imminent, but to many young people the workings of government seem as alien as the paranormal world of The X-Files. However, an Internet initiative set up by Microsoft and BT CampusWorld aims to attack the root of this problem by encouraging young Scullys and Mulders to investigate the electoral process, and to cast their votes in their own election.
The X Project: Schools Election Online will mirror the real thing, security measures and all, and the results will be released the Friday before those of the main election. Each school will register with BT to get an electoral roll number.
The Web site contains parliamentary news updated every 20 minutes by the UK News Agency, along with suggested activities, projects and on-line interviews with politicians. There is also a background section called Setting the Scene, which includes information about the main parties, the fringe parties, marginal seats, and 18 years of Conservative rule, as well as a list of constituencies.
Young investigators can trawl through warts-and-all profiles of the chief protagonists, complete with mugshots and nicknames. While Gillian Shephard gets off lightly as "a media-friendly performer who has restored relations with the teaching unions and introduced popular reforms", Kenneth Clarke, aka "Canny Ken", is painted as bluff, beer-drinking and gaffe-prone.
Pupils from All Saints junior school in Fleet, Hampshire, have been involved from the outset; their head of upper school and IT co-ordinator, Deidre Thorn, is writing some of the project's primary material. They grilled Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrats' president, on a recent visit to the school and have selected four national and four local issues for on-line debate between participating schools. The Web site suggests several topics, including education, employment, transport, Europe, law and order and children's rights, but Ms Thorn "was impressed with what they came up with on their own, such as the introduction of a national identity card so under-age children cannot buy fireworks or cigarettes. They may not always see both sides, but do feel strongly about issues we tend to think are too adult for them."
Her Year 6 classes are forming a children's party with the aid of Web-site guidelines provided by Hansard on how to organise their own election and House of Commons-style classroom debates. The pupils will come up with a name, party emblem, slogan and posters, nominate spokespeople to hold forth on four key issues the party stands for - such as education and the playground - and go round the school campaigning. They hope to hold their ballot on election day itself.
For Deidre Thorn the project will provide numerous English and mathematics opportunities, such as working out vote percentages. "It will also give my pupils a head start when studying the Greeks next term on concepts that are difficult to get across normally, such as how the Greeks helped define our way of governing and how many of our words are of Greek origin." And Ms Thorn expects them to "appreciate IT as a useful form of communication between all parts of the community".
Regular challenges appear on the Web site, to be answered by e-mail, an example being the rather cynical "Write a politician's response to an issue that sounds credible without saying anything". Pupils may also follow a treasure trail, put up cartoons and caricatures of political personalities, places and situations, and answer multi-choice questions.
Much of the completed work can be submitted for Microsoft's Road Ahead Prize, to be awarded for the most imaginative use of the Net. One primary, secondary and special school will each receive Pounds 10,000 to spend on IT. The closing date is April 15, and the prizes will be awarded in June. All registering schools will receive free Microsoft software - Communication Tools for Schools - to help them use the Net effectively. CTS builds on Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 and includes a range of Internet software.
David Gregory, Microsoft's strategic relations manager and education officer, says the tools are designed to help schools join "a connected learning community". The company envisages "schools acting as the hub of information sharing and democratisation within the local community. We want students, teachers and parents to get involved in debate anywhere, not just on the Net."
Today's young citizens have never known anything but a Conservative government. Given the chance to vote, which party would they return to power? The answer is out there.
Road Ahead Prize: www.microsoft. comukeducationroad.htm
Helpline number: 0800 33300
BT CampusWorld helpline: 0345 573393.
The X-Files Web site http:www.thex-files.com