The Sketch: Nippers glaze over as odd squad go to school

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The Independent Online

The youth centre was packed with whatever they're called these days. The 10-15-year-old Non-Voting Pre-Constituency. Temporally Disadvantaged Persons. "Kids." I got in without a CRB check, I hope someone will be prosecuted for that. I could have been anyone.

We had gathered under the auspices of First News (another gallant attempt to interest children in newspapers). In front of cameras and snappers, a hundred nippers had come "to grill" the Schools Secretary and his shadows.

This meant a child asking about bullying or poverty or voting or childhood obesity and then glazing over for 10 minutes while middle-aged men talked about facilities, staying safe, "trusted adults", focusing on competitive sport, reporting it to teacher, deep structural factors and "the environment of the local community".

I found it amusing, obviously, and quite interesting, but I'm well over into the dark side now. The children thought it was another pointless hour of listening to adults doing something for their own purposes. Like training them for their Sats.

The organisers had separated Ed Balls and Michael Gove; there's always trouble when they sit together. David Laws was put between them. The Tory on one side and the minister on the other both tried to propitiate him. Ed looked on with bovine love and even got his eyeballs to pulse in time with David's speech rhythms.

Each had at least one interesting thing to say. Balls wouldn't abolish private schools because he wouldn't want to live in a society where people "couldn't make those choices". That was new.

David Laws said "exam factories squeeze the joy out of education". That, from anything we heard, will become truer as the years go by.

And Michael Gove, asked how any of them could relate to people who hadn't been to private school, said: "As politicians we're odd to begin with. Our capacity to understand how everyone in the country feels is, I feel, limited."

He also managed a deadpan line on one of the questions. "I know Ed is very interested in bullying," he said. It wasn't clear how far the minister's reputation has travelled but it made me snort, there at the back.

Ed himself seemed to have the least idea of his audience. He assumed they weren't interested in the theology of education so kept his messages subliminal. "They" had paid for the youth centre, he told them, it had cost "loads of money" but "personally, I think young people deserve it". Ah, you see? Some others didn't think young people deserved it. Then he said that Michael was going to take £200m, "that's a fifth of the budget" out of Sure Start. The children took that pretty well. Maybe they didn't believe him.

He said something about Mr and Mrs Gove Snr which caused Michael to say: "He shouldn't say that about my mum and dad."

None of this worked in the hall, judging by the response. There was a show of coloured cards at the end, a vote. There was a clear majority of Lib Dem yellow. So there's the election: politicians are shown the yellow card.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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