Election fever grips pupils as campaign trail reaches finale
Simulation of national poll brings schools across Aberdeenshire closer to the democratic process
After weeks of campaigning, the waiting is finally over, bowed heads are busily counting and election candidates anxiously wish the minutes away until their constituency result is ready to be declared.
Piles of ballot papers are bundled at long tables across Inverurie Town Hall, and the returning officer is surveying the scene. It’s a common scene across the country on election night - the difference today is that some prospective candidates are as young as 12 and have to be back at school in time for chemistry in the afternoon.
This is Aberdeenshire schools’ General Election, the first of its kind involving seven school constituencies and as near to the real thing as possible. When the results are declared, Aberdeenshire Council’s chief executive and returning officer Colin Mackenzie stands alongside candidates and announces the numbers of votes polled.
At seven schools, there have been hustings, “question time” sessions, party political broadcasts and some heated exchanges. Each school ran its own contest as part of a single constituency, with five pupils standing as candidates for the five political parties in Scotland represented at Holyrood or Westminster.
Pupils nominated candidates, ran their own campaigns, staffed the polling stations and are now counting the votes. They have created their own manifestos, based on their chosen party’s policies, with their school electorate in mind.
The venture has been used as a training exercise by the council’s elections team ahead of the general election. They adhere strictly to the usual procedures and use their own ballot boxes and polling equipment.
It is part of the council’s strategy to engage young people in democracy and encourage all to use their vote. A delighted Mr Mackenzie announces a 75 per cent turnout across the seven schools.
“If we can replicate that with the adults in the forthcoming general election, then we will know we have got active involvement in our democracy,” he says.
The event has attracted interest from the Electoral Commission in Scotland, which is keen to encourage youngsters to register to vote. Its research has found 56 per cent of 17 to 24-year-olds in the study area were not registered. Electoral commissioner for Scotland John McCormick, a former chairman of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, praises the event’s authenticity and pupils’ enthusiasm.
“Anything that encourages participation in elections is good for us and that is one of the things we ought to encourage,” he says. “This is a great example of it.”
For some teenagers, it’s been a tense couple of weeks. Johnathan Kain, 17, election agent for the Conservative candidate at Ellon Academy, says: “It is stressful - just constant pressure to get things done. And you have to weigh up whether I am going to do a bit of my physics report tonight or Photoshop pictures of David Cameron with our words on it?”
The teenager’s stress levels peaked two days ago when his candidate got flu and Johnathan had to stand in for him at the spirited hustings. He wants spending cuts to get the economy on an even keel and matrons back on the wards to run hospitals efficiently.
“We’re not very popular with young people,” he says. “But since we’ve been speaking at assemblies, I think people realise we’re a bit more reasonable than the Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher. We’ve put that behind us.”
Ellon Academy’s election co-ordinator, Donald Morrison, principal teacher of humanities, says: “There are properly-constructed ballot slips, and we’ve gone through the process of having nominations for candidates and selection proceedings. We’ve got election agents and they have £20 for each party, which they have to account for.”
Scottish Green Party candidate at Ellon Academy is Robert Cruickshanks, 17, who has been face-painting pupils in the run-up to the election. “We’re giving out chocolates to people who paint their faces green,” he says. He wants pupils to see the party is not only about environmental issues.
“My major policy is to reform the curriculum. I think it could be a much more open-minded learning experience than it is. It’s very exam-focused,” he says.
The first constituency to declare its results at Inverurie Town Hall is St Andrews School, a special school just a few hundred yards away. Conner Morrison, 12, has notched up the first victory for the Scottish National Party with a raft of policies which appealed to constituents.
“Reducing class sizes in P1-3 to 18 children, putting more bobbies on the beat to tackle crime and keeping local hospitals open,” says Conner, relaxing after his result is declared.
Teachers say schools have been gripped by the event: “For the last six weeks, there has been election fever - it’s very close between the Conservatives and SNP,” says Joanne Mitchell, a modern studies teacher from Turriff Academy.
Ian Bersten, acting principal teacher of humanities at Fraserburgh Academy, says: “They’ve enjoyed the count and being officials at the polling stations as much as the candidates have enjoyed themselves. Their maths is certainly improving.”
As the event draws to a close, it’s down to Banchory Academy to provide the main political drama of the day when just two votes separate two second-year pupils in first and second place. After a nail-biting recount, the SNP candidate Liam Hutcheon beats Liberal Democrat Jamie Brown by just one vote.
In a thoughtful acceptance speech from the town hall stage, Liam expresses his astonishment that the result has been so close and flags up a positive learning outcome: “This shows that every single vote counts and everyone should use their right to vote properly,” he tells a cheering crowd.
Jean McLeish firstname.lastname@example.org
Ellon Academy - Lee Baxter (Liberal Democrat)
Banchory Academy - Liam Hutcheon (Scottish National Party)
Fraserburgh Academy - Scott West (Scottish National Party)
Portlethen Academy - Helen McGeorge (Conservative)
St Andrews School - Conner Morrison (Scottish National Party)
The Gordon Schools - Matthew Sutherland (Labour)
Turriff Academy - Keenan Nicol (Scottish National Party).