Bringing Big Ben to Blyth
The first words I ever spoke in a lesson in my school were when I held aloft a homemade ballot box and said ‘This is the most powerful object in the world, it can bring down governments, it can start wars, it can change the lives of millions of people. Today we are going to learn how to use it.’
It was my observed lesson for my interview and I wanted to use my love of politics and the democratic process to fire up the children’s imaginations about ways they could change the world.
But that introduction wasn’t just ‘purple’ language to hook the children and hopefully impress my future bosses (well perhaps a little). Democracy is fascinating to me, whether in the ancient Greek city-states where it all started, the multi-million dollar razzmatazz of the US presidential elections or the optimism of Afghan villagers holding up their dye-stained fingers. Everywhere a vote is cast it keeps alive a system in which the people, not a king, not a dictator, but the ordinary people can control their own destiny.
This is not a view shared by everyone, many people take no interest in the goings-on at our own palace of democracy in Westminster. They are turned off by the organised shouting that seems to pass for debate in the House of Commons and the trail of endless soundbites, broken promises and seedy scandals. The incomprehensible jargon presents another reason for turning off when Parliament is being discussed.
This is what I want to change. It’s vital that people connect what goes on in the shadow of the Elizabeth Tower with the laws that govern their daily lives. There is nothing sadder than someone who does not vote and deprives themselves of a say in their own future. As a teacher I want to build a community of engaged and passionate citizens who understand the power given to them by that ballot box. This crusade starts at primary school.
My current subject responsibilities cover School Council, Eco Council, Equalities and British Values. What these all have in common is civic engagement and getting the children to look at the world around them and see how they can affect it positively. Too often it must feel very powerless to be a child, to be always be told what to do by parents and teachers. By acting through a body such as the School Council and seeing the effect that people like the Suffragettes had children can see that they can make a difference.
When I first started trying to raise these issues in school I had little idea how I was going to do it. Beyond the file left to me by my predecessor and whatever I could find on the internet there didn’t seem to be much guidance on developing democracy in a school. That has all changed now, largely due to my attendance at the Teachers’ Institute at Parliament.
This is a bi-annual course ran by the Parliamentary Education Service, designed to give teachers the information and ideas they need to spread the word about the work of parliament in British schools. My attendance was suggested by my Headteacher and there was no cost to the school other than cover for my class.
For someone who enjoys politics this was like being given an all-expenses paid trip to Hollywood. We managed to see Jeremy Corbyn, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson among others while we trooped around the Palace of Westminster in our group of 72. We met with the Speaker, John Bercow, who amazed me with his passion for extending public knowledge of Parliament and engaging young people in democracy. Sarah Wollaston MP was extremely friendly and informative and kept encouraging all of us to try to become MPs, although her tales of the vile e-mail and twitter abuse she receives were slightly off-putting. It restored some of your faith in our political class to see how willing these obviously busy people were to give up their time to speak to us.
During our stay at Parliament we were also given the chance to discuss what we had learned with the other teachers on the course, coming up with ways we could involve the children when we got back. The staff at the Education Centre made sure that we left with all the materials we needed to spread the word in the pour schools and throughout the constituency.
The aim of the course is for us to become Parliamentary Ambassadors. As Parliamentary Ambassadors we would train other teachers while increasing awareness among the children in our school. There are three levels of Ambassador, bronze, silver and gold, depending on how many other schools and children we could involve in our activities.
Inspired by the people I met on the course and with loads of ideas I started the new school year determined to make the most of the training I had received. As National Parliament Week started on 13th November I thought this would be an ideal opportunity to start ticking off the activities towards achieving my gold ambassadorship and begin raising awareness of Parliament in school.
First up I had to deliver training to staff for my school and at least two other schools in the constituency. The Teachers’ Institute had given me the Powerpoint and the activities. My Headteacher gave me a slot in the staff meeting schedule and sent out an invite to other schools in the area. All I had to do was deliver it.
The session went really well and everyone seemed to enjoy it. What was particularly encouraging was the number of people who told me afterwards that they got a lot from the training even though they had previously had no interest in politics.
Next up, the children. If I can de-mystify the obscure jargon of British politics and get election-weary adults to share some of the love I feel for democracy then the open minds of the young should be no problem…
Martin Murphy is a Year 4 teacher at Horton Grange Primary School in Blyth, Northumberland