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Primary school pupils are normally kept well away from adults' decision making
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The Independent Online
DAVID BLUNKETT'S proposal to introduce citizenship as a school subject has had a mixed reaction. Like him, I was a member of the Speaker's Commission on Citizenship 10 years ago, so I am not surprised. Many different views were expressed at the time and have been since. Young people in schools and colleges today will be adult citizens throughout most of the next century, yet there is little agreement about how, or even whether, education should prepare them.

Even defining "citizenship" is not easy. Some see it as the reintroduction of conscription: give the awkward acne brigade a short haircut, march them up and down, teach them to obey, prior to a cold shower and a mug of Oxo. Some regard it as an opportunity to inform youngsters about their rights, so that they will collect the benefits due to them. Others want lots of volunteering, clearing choked footpaths and painting old folks' bungalows.

It is the folly of age that adults expect too little of youth. The poor little simpletons know nothing about the school of hard knocks, the argument runs. If times were hard we could make a nourishing stew out of a pair of wellingtons and knit a Centurion tank out of old socks. Just give us oldies their cardiovascular system and we could rule the universe.

I was reminded of this lack of belief during the competition to find the 60 11-year-olds who could constitute the Children's Parliament, which met for the first time two weeks ago and which quizzed cabinet ministers and presented their White Paper to the Prime Minister last Tuesday.

The Children's Parliament grew out of a desire to give children a say in what happens to the environment. Its origins were simple. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, went to visit a sea-life centre in his constituency. He was watching seals being cleaned after the ravages of oil pollution when a dozen schoolchildren, also on a visit, gave him a polite earful. He was supposed to be in charge of the environment, they said, so what was he doing about preventing this kind of pollution?

Impressed by the well-articulated and genuine passion of these children, John Prescott got in touch with me and together we worked out a format for a parliament of 11-year-olds. It would have to be a genuine forum, for neither of us wanted to have anything to do with a mere photocall or stunt. David Blunkett was also highly enthusiastic. Debating and essay competitions were held in nine different regions to find the 60 11-year- olds who would take part in as near to a real parliament as it would be possible for us to arrange.

Primary pupils are normally kept well away from adults' decision-making, yet anyone who thinks that 11-year-olds would be tongue-tied and unable to marshal evidence should have attended the numerous local preliminaries and later the regional finals of the essay and debating competitions. More than 100,000 children from 3,500 primary schools took part.

The standard of debate and essay was generally good and in some cases quite remarkable. Just a few children simply read out a speech, and some essayists lifted pieces off the Internet which they did not fully understand, but most had an impressive grasp of the issues and also of the scientific evidence that surrounded them, despite the odd misconception about rainforests or the hole in the ozone layer.

Last Tuesday was a notable piece of democracy. It was unique in the history of Parliament for cabinet ministers and the Speaker to be formally and publicly grilled in the Palace of Westminster by 11-year-old primary pupils. A foretaste of the occasion was offered last November when we first launched the Children's Parliament. A group of 11-year-old pupils from London and Hull primary schools went to the House of Commons to quiz John Prescott and David Blunkett.

"Why don't you ban smoking in public places?" one asked. "Because I want to get re-elected," John Prescott replied, but then went on to give a serious explanation about the difficulties of balancing one group's rights and wishes against those of another group. It was a pity that more children and politicians could not have been present; it was good citizenship education for the pupils and thought-provoking for the politicians.

The next stage for these seasoned junior parliamentarians will be for them to visit the European Parliament where they can deliver their proposals again. Given the mass resignation of the European commissioners, who knows, they may even be asked to fill the gap.

The speeches of these youthful citizens were better researched and indeed more coherently delivered than some of those in adult parliaments, so nothing should be ruled out.

The writer is professor of education at the University of Exeter