Ever since a floppy-haired William Hague took to the stage at the age of 16 to deliver his speech against the re-election of James Callaghan, politics watchers have known to keep an eye out for young rising stars at conferences across Britain. Yesterday, it was the turn of Joe Cotton, a 15-year-old schoolboy, to turn heads as well as the tables as he attacked Mr Hague's party's policy from the podium.
The teenager, a pupil at Calder High School - the oldest comprehensive in Yorkshire - took the stage at the National Union of Teachers' conference in Harrogate to defend the education maintenance allowance. "I'd like to stress how important it is that it is protected," he said. "The Government believes EMA is a wasteful luxury. I don't agree and neither do 10 of the UK's leading economists."
Under the scheme, introduced by Labour, 16 to 18-year-olds can receive up to £30 a week to help them to stay on at school. The Government is axing it for all new applicants from September and saving £400 million by setting up a more limited bursary scheme which will provide assistance to those who have qualified for free school meals.
Ministers had claimed the bursary would be better targeted but the schoolboy showed his political skills with a swipe at the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. "I don't know how nifty Michael Gove thinks he can be with loaves and fishes or even a buss pass and some textbooks but he'd need nothing short of a miracle to replicate the benefits of EMA with that budget," he said.
"I believe that even if one student is unable to continue education based on their family's income and not their ability, then the Government has failed in its responsibility to uphold basic rights to education."
He left the delegates with a parting shot: "Do all you can to help keep education accessible and affordable for my generation - and I promise that I'll go home and start my GCSE revision."
Joe, who was accompanied to the conference by his parents, Paul and Sarah Cotton, said afterwards that he wanted to become a teacher when he left school. Asked if would like a career as a politician, he added: "It was something I'd thought about a little bit before. I suppose so. I don't really know where you'd start.
"I think this is one of the most politically active generations of students for a long time," he said. Joe started public speaking at a young apprentices meeting in Halifax where he had been spotted by Ian Murch, the treasurer of the NUT. The invitation to address the conference then followed.
Meanwhile, two out of three colleges believe student recruitment will be hit by the Government's decision to scrap the allowances, according to a survey published today. The survey - by the NUT and the University and College Union - also revealed that the vast majority (96 per cent) were suffering budget cuts this year, with half saying they would have to reduce the number of courses they offer. Three out four were likely tomake teachers redundant.
POLITICAL AND PRECOCIOUS
William Hague, 1977 The amiable 16-year-old politics student from Yorkshire, addressed the Conservative Party conference on national television. He became president of the Conservative Association and president of the Oxford Union – then later, less successfully, Leader of the Opposition, and now Foreign Secretary.
Helen Searle, 1998 The 15-year-old from Banff and Buchan delighted the Labour Party conference with a speech on Europe. She later said: “If I ever do become Leader of the Labour Party, say in 20 years time, I hope there won't be endless playbacks of me speaking now.”
Jonathan Krohn, 2009 The great hope of America’s right in the Obama generation, Krohn made a speech in 2009 that wowed Republicans. Aged 13, he told the annual meeting of US conservatives in Washington: “I want the American people to understand that conservatism is an ideology of protecting the people and the people's rights.”