What do the teens want?

People assume that pupils aren't interested in the general election campaign. But, after attending a political meeting at a school in south London, Steve McCormack is not so sure
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The Independent Online

When politicians turn up at a school, it's usually with cameras in tow and a planned backdrop of happy, well-marshalled teenagers providing the canvas for policies claiming they will make education the most important priority.

When politicians turn up at a school, it's usually with cameras in tow and a planned backdrop of happy, well-marshalled teenagers providing the canvas for policies claiming they will make education the most important priority.

If questions are allowed, they come from reporters, eager for the quote to fit the news agenda of the day, with the children relegated to the role of extras on a film-set. We don't find out what's in those young minds. Their views on the interloping opportunists are not part of the script.

Tonight, though, it's different. The school hall at Salesian College, a comprehensive for boys aged 11 to 16, in a Battersea housing estate, is filling up with 15- and 16-year-olds who know they'll be posing the questions. On the stage are representatives of the three main parties fighting this inner London seat, which was held by Labour last time with a 5,000 majority.

The hall is pretty full, the 80 or so blazered boys joined at the back by parents and teachers. In the front row are half a dozen pupils clutching slips of paper bearing their pre-scripted questions: large font, bold type. The topics range from tuition fees and selection in schools to abortion, the fate of Rover's Longbridge plant, whether the Iraq war will affect the vote and, in a nod to the new influence of Jamie Oliver, unhealthy food.

Kevin Regan, the assistant head teacher who has organised the evening, says that what struck him when he ran sessions with boys to prepare them for this evening was their inquisitiveness. "They were already reasonably well informed, but wanted to know more about the issues."

I mingle with the boys in the body of the hall to gauge expectations. Many have no idea exactly who's going to be on the platform. Along with countless shrugs and "dunno"s are these two guesses: "they're all MPs", and, "one of them used to be a sports personality." Then, out of the blue, comes the right answer: "They're the candidates in Battersea".

I ask the boys away from the hand-picked front row what they want to hear. Three topics dominate: university tuition fees, the day-to-day expenses of school life, particularly bus fares, and crime.

In fact, crime appears to be their abiding concern. The subject is mentioned by far the most. Perhaps that has something to do with the local environment. Towering over the school site are the forbidding tower blocks of the Surrey Lane estate. One boy says that, for safety reasons, he sometimes has to vary his walk to and from school; another says he saw some teenagers being roughed up on the way to the school this evening; and a third talks of how it's common knowledge that some people out there carry weapons.

The warm-up man is on his feet: Gus O'Donnell, a Salesian old boy and now a civil service mandarin at the Treasury. "I work for who you elect," he tells the boys, trying to define, for this audience, the position of a civil servant. But when he expands and slips into his day-job vernacular, mentioning "talks with the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin," and "the incoming Labour administration," I wonder how much he's carrying his teenage audience with him.

The panel is introduced: Labour's Martin Linton, a former Guardian journalist who won the seat in 2001, Norsheen Bhatti, standing for the Liberal Democrats, and James Cousins, a local Conservative councillor. We're not told why the Tory candidate hasn't showed up.

The questions begin with Iraq and Rover eliciting the kind of adult answers you'd hear on TV's Question Time. The audience listens politely, but shows almost no emotion. In less than two years the boys will have votes of their own, but the politicians don't seem to be addressing them directly. The first flicker of life comes when Bhatti fixes the centre of the audience with her eyes, and says, about Rover, "How would you feel if your parents were going to lose their jobs?"

The next question is about advances in health and education in the last four years. Linton hasn't done his homework, and gets in a muddle by equating year 11 and key stage two (year 11 is actually key stage four), but, if the boys notice the gaffe, they don't let on. The candidate recovers and gets the evening's first round of applause with his forthright opposition to the return of academic selection in schools.

The Conservatives' Cousins appears to win the abortion debate, the clapping following his Right to Life argument attracting marginally more applause than the largely status-quo positions of his opponents. But he's soon trumped on the clap-o-meter by Bhatti's short, sharp promise that the Liberal Democrats would abolish tuition fees. This issue strikes a chord among these boys, who come mostly from financially modest inner-city backgrounds, but who aspire to the social mobility offered by a university education. Bhatti also appears also to be winning points among her audience for her brevity and directness.

As the end approaches, an unlikely question injects the first piece of real edge into the proceedings. "Should the sale of unhealthy foods, such as McDonald's and KFC, be taxed in the same way as cigarettes?" asks Tarshish Kusi, 15.

The Lib Dems' Bhatti confesses she has no idea. What does Tarshish think? He is not in favour, he says, because he likes eating at KFC. Laughter all round. Bhatti invites a show of hands from the audience, and there's clear majority, among boys and adults, opposed to taxing fast food. Whatever would Jamie Oliver think?

But the youngsters like being asked their opinion about a subject that they feel means something to them - and they like seeing an instant result.

Events such as this help students to raise pupils' sights beyond exam results (at GCSE, the school is improving fast and now sits just below the national average) to the serious business of what's going on in people's lives and communities, says the head, Stephen McCann. Enthusiastic applause suggests the boys agree.

Afterwards, I find appreciation for the evening among the students, and some critical analysis, too. Maybe the boys learned something. "They didn't always answer the question they'd been asked," says one "When one of them says crime is going up, and the other says it's going down, who do we believe?" asks another. They could be speaking for the nation.

If there's a common criticism, it's that the questioning and debate was never really opened up to the floor. A lot of boys behind the front row would have liked to ask their own questions, but they never got a look in.

The evening shows that this is certainly not a generation preparing to turn its back on conventional Westminster democracy. But I come away with the feeling that more schools must stage more of these exercises more frequently if we are to engage the voters of the future.

The marks: how one pupil rated the three politicians and their views

Tarshish Kusi, 15, is in his final year at Salesian College, and is about to take his GCSEs

"The evening was quite good. We were able to ask our questions about the general things going on in the country, and I think they answered them quite well. I particularly remember the lady who said her party would get rid of tuition fees. I think that would benefit a lot of students.

"On crime, they all expressed themselves to the best of their abilities, but I don't think they know as much as people who live round here. I know that there is a lot of crime in this area and I think there definitely should be more police on the streets.

"What I would have liked to hear more of, but didn't, was about help for students like me on transport costs for getting to school, and, next year, to college, and an increase in the Education Maintenance Allowance."