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Neil McLennan, a former Principal Teacher of History, is a Quality Improvement Officer in Aberdeen. In 2011 he won the Arnold Kemp prize, the Institute of Contemporary Scotland/Scottish Review Young Scot of the Year 2011 Award.
He has now published Political Animals? Key Issues for Young Citizens, a set of brief essays from the competitors for the award.
It covers a wide range of contemporary issues from overcrowding in prisons to domestic violence, from global terrorism to the role of IT in education. With one exception the authors are in the late-teens to mid-30s bracket. Each essay is some 900 words long, readable, snappy, and above all, presenting the views of a new generation.
From an educational perspective, the collection offers a wonderful starting point for lessons in modern studies, RMPS, English, personal and social education and other areas of the curriculum.
Rich Millan’s piece on euthanasia projects takes a radical approach which should certainly engender impassioned debate. Kirsty Cameron advocates a boost for international aid. Amy Wood challenges the wisdom of releasing Megrahi.
As well as the excellent piece on terrorism by Neil McLennan himself, perhaps the most stimulating contribution, Does our Society Value Thought? is by Thom Sherrington who, like McLennan, is a history teacher. Sherrington, who won the 2010 Scottish Schools Young Thinker of the Year award, excoriates the philistinism of the media. He paints reality TV as today’s gladiatorial diversion for the masses. He mourns the interest in the sex lives of the rich and famous. He suggests that at least in France, millions still take to the streets on social and political issues but that in Britain, there is more interest in Wayne Rooney’s wages than in government cuts.
Sherrington’s solution, the teaching of thinking skills as a key part of the curriculum in all our schools, may indeed be part of the answer. The real joy is that the intellectual state of the nation remains of consuming interest to at least some of the rising generation.
As well as being provocative and likely to inspire discussion, the collection, written by, and in the language of, young people, will carry much more credibility than many academic texts.
These pieces however are stimulants, rather than models, for school students’ discussion and writing. The standard format for the discursive essay (introduction, main argument, secondary arguments, counter-arguments, judgement, conclusion) is seldom followed in these pieces and although that formula is not absolute it is a useful teaching tool.
The perspective of young people, as well as having a pedagogic value for teachers, also makes the book enormously valuable for politicians and policy makers. What hit me, as the father of two ‘young twenties’, is that the collection in a curious way, encapsulated the interests, the issues and the approaches typical of that generation. They tend to be single issue focused. They do not necessarily fit into party political labels or ideologies but are nonetheless forcibly expressed and emotionally powerful.
A second edition is expected soon and several local authorities are now considering how they can engage senior students in writing local editions of Political Animals? Every young person has views on the big issues and the opportunity to express these fits superbly with Curriculum for Excellence.
Neil McLennan’s initiative has achieved an admirable combination of practical social enterprise, educational innovation and the development of active citizenship.
That’s the kind of leadership we’re all seeking for Scottish education.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine:

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