Tuesday, September 20, 2011

#ldconf Monday (2): In which I am inspired by those I was asked to inspire

The most enjoyable part of Monday for me was away from the conference itself.

An old friend and colleague, Simon Foster, is now a Politics Lecturer at Birmingham Metropolitan College, and he had asked me to go and speak to his A2 Politics group about Liberalism.

This term the group are learning about the main political ideologies, so the arrival of the Liberal Democrat conference in the city has enabled many of his students to get some hands on experience of a political party.

Not being in any way academic myself, I was a little unsure of where to start.  I ended up deciding to talk about how I had become involved in politics (25 years ago I would have been sitting in my A Level Politics class!), how I worked out I was a Liberal, what Liberalism means to me and how that links with some of the issues the Liberal Democrats have been discussing this week.

Simon gave me a lift over to the College and blimey it's impressive.  I took my A Levels at the then Sir William Turners Sixth Form College in Redcar which had about 160 students in each f its two years.  It was tiny and was recently closed and demolished after merging with the bigger local FE College.

Birmingham Met is on an entirely different scale. The Matthew Boulton campus (which used to be a college in its own right) seemed to be as big as a small university.

By coincidence the College were also about to receive a visit from (Baroness) Margaret Sharp, Lib Dem peer and education policy expert, which did mean that coffee and buns had been laid on.  I got to talk with a diverse group of youngsters who were waiting for her about the courses they were doing and their aspirations for the future.

I then got taken up to Simon's classroom and watched the first part of the lesson which was about the main principles of Liberalism, a nice lead in to what I had in mind to say.

It was immediately clear that Simon's students were a bright bunch, as well as a real mix, and they were very engaged in the discussion.  It also struck me that whatever some people might say about exam standards they group were working at a higher level than I remember from my A Level course 25 years ago.

I then got up and did my bit.  I talked about how I had first got interested in politics when I did my A Levels and that the first politician I went to hear speak was Shirley Williams, then MP.  This was obviously the moment when Baroness Sharp was going to turn up on her tour of the College which she then did.  The consequence of this was that she had to sit an listen to me explaining Liberal ideology for ten minutes, which is a bit of a role reversal!

She and her entourage left, and I went on to link Liberal theory with some of the issues we have been dealing with as a party:  relating the ID Cards issue back to Mill, the pupil premium to positive liberty etc.

Most of the session was then left for discussion and it was, for me, a joy to take part in.  The standard of debate was high, and we tackled some difficult issues.  A question was raised about the limits of free speech. I posed the example of the insulting cartoon of The Prophet Muhammed which were published in Denmark in 2005 and how it related to Mill's harm principle.

We also discussed Lib Dem education policy (tuition fees and EMAs were both high on their minds) and how different people have come to different conclusions about spending priorities and how that might relate back to Liberal principles.

Most of Simon's students were already applying for University but I was keen to end the session by encouraging them on that path.  I talked a little about my personal experience, coming from a background where University wasn't the common option, and what a life-enhancing experience University had been for me.  I'm glad to say that they all seemed to be keen on applying and several chatted about where they were hoping to go and what they hoped to do.

I cannot express how impressed I was with the level of debate and the eloquence of the students and felt quite inspired by the whole experience.  They were great kids and I hope they go on to fulfil their ambitions.


DMcILROY said...

Nice post Neil. Any mention of Willy Turner's on your blog is fine by me. Being a hard science fundamentalist though, I have to wonder what the point of teaching politics in 6th form is. They'd all be better off doing physics and a foreign language if you ask me.


Neil. said...

I certainly agree that there is a good case for maintaining a broader choice at post-16.

However Politics is an interesting subject which does encourage people to think, develop arguments etc.

From a purely personal point of view it clearly had some effect!