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Vote? Er, I kinda forgot to...

Direct contact with repressive regimes can be a great cure for apathy, reports Adi Bloom

When people say they want to kill Conservative leader Michael Howard, they do not really mean it. This is the conclusion that 18-year-old Beverley Mensa-Annan reached after learning that the Chinese state has in the past executed opposition politicians.

Beverley, a Year 13 pupil at Our Lady's Convent high, in east London, has been discussing what life is like for students her age in China. Later this year, she and her fellow sixth-formers will travel to meet teenagers in the southern Chinese town of Kunming.

This link, set up through the British Council, is among those being highlighted by the TES Make the Link campaign.

Beverley did not register to vote in yesterday's general election ("I kinda forgot," she said) and many of her friends feel apathetic towards British politicians. But this apathy has been shaken by the knowledge that Chinese teenagers cannot have a real say in who rules them.

"Most of my friends aren't too concerned about who runs the country, as long as they get what they want," she said. "People get fed up and say they'd like to kill politicians. But if Michael Howard was campaigning against the government in China, he really would be executed. And even Michael Howard represents someone's views."

Beverley's views may be simplistic - the Chinese state does not routinely execute dissidents, although some who oppose it have been killed - but it is clear that learning about the Chinese system has helped her to appreciate her freedoms.

Hilary Hopwood, French teacher at Lancaster girls' grammar, is also more grateful for her rights after participating in the British Council scheme.

In December, Ms Hopwood visited a link school in Madagascar, which suffered a post, food and fuel blockade when the country's president tried to overturn the results of an election he had lost.

"We don't realise how much we take free and fair elections for granted," she said. "We expect whoever loses to back down gracefully. Since I've come back, I've joined a political party and become actively involved."

And when she stepped into the polling booth, she was judging candidates by a new set of values:

"You want a party that represents an ideal you can grasp hold of," she said. "It's not just about who will make me pound;10 better off."

Beverley and her classmates believe that their attitudes to voting have changed since learning about their link country.

Michaela DiBellonin, 17, said: "If all young people here were taught about places where you can't vote, we might not take voting for granted."

Year 12 pupil Ashley Roper has also been reassessing her own political involvement. "In our school, we protested and campaigned against the war in Iraq," she said. "Chinese pupils aren't even able to do that."

At 17, Ashley is too young to vote in the election. But she resists comparisons with the disenfranchised teens she will meet in Kunming.

"I'm still young," she said. "We'll get our chance. The Chinese never will."

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

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