Greater Manchester school children interview mayor

Pupils from three high schools across the region put their questions to Andy Burnham

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The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has been taken to task by young students from three schools across the county. In a “digital surgery” facilitated by the Politics Project the questions came exclusively from the children in their classrooms.

The workshop on 20 March involved students from Ladybridge High School in Bolton, Altrincham Girls’ Grammar School and Melland High School in Gorton, who were face to face with the mayor via video link. Questions ranged from Manchester’s growing homeless problem and Brexit to how the students themselves can get involved in politics and even how he proposed to his wife.

The first question came from Altrincham. Burnham was asked about one of his key campaign issues, homelessnesss, and why he believes it takes precedence over other issues.

“Because it’s the most serious thing that is happening before our eyes,” said Burnham. “The idea that anybody is left on the streets without much support means that their health is at risk, but not just their health – it’s their life also that is at risk.

“This is a matter of life and death and I believe this is a more urgent problem than some other things.”

Over to Ladybridge, where UK Parliament teacher of the year Joy Helliwell’s year nine students were taking part in their fifth surgery – their second with Burnham. Student Daniyal asked what his priorities would be if he ever became prime minister.

“I’m going to sound like a typical politician now but I’m going to say young people. I think we have allowed a situation to develop in this country where we have cut too much support away from young people,” said Burnham. “I think it’s because there are too many people growing up in this country without hope that they can get a good life when they leave school. That is a result of too much support being taken away.”

“We try and make the children understand that their voice still matters, even though they have not voted for a particular politician.”

Digital surgeries are 45 minute to one hour long video conferences between politicians and their student constituents, and are one of the key components of social enterprise the Politics Project’s work, which is designed to promote political literacy among children. It began in Greater Manchester in 2015 and now works across the UK. Politicians are given no prior warning about what will be asked in the sessions.

“The digital surgery is a great way to connect politicians and young people, and find out their views and opinions on the issues that affect them the most,” Burnham told Big Issue North. “I want to ensure our young people have hope for the future. These surgeries allow me to have open and in-depth conversations with them, to find out how they feel, what they believe needs to change, and take on board their ideas on how we make a better future.”

Later in the session Burnham was asked about Brexit, which he told pupils he was worried about and that he thought was “bad news”, although he conceded it should proceed. On the negative stereotypes against refugees he criticised “some newspapers” and reminded pupils that refugees are fleeing persecution and deserve our “sympathy and support”. On youth crime he apportioned some blame to social media.

Helliwell, whose pupils have also interviewed Chris Green, Bolton West MP, North West MEP Julie Ward and Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley, believes the students benefit enormously from the workshops and having their voices heard.

“I teach citizenship and one of the things we try and make the children understand is that their voice still matters. Even though they have not voted for a particular politician or their parents have not, it doesn’t matter because that politician still represents them,” she said. “Andy Burnham was great at saying that he valued what young people had to say and that he felt a lot of them were not being heard. It was really good and a bit of a boost to hear that from someone like him.”

Ladybridge student and aspiring politician Molly said: “The class was having a good time and we were engaged in what he was saying. It was a worthwhile experience because it gave us an insight into what Andy Burnham does. I asked him what’s the best way to get a career in politics and he really explained his answer well.”

Burnham explained that he had no political connections when starting out and began by working for a local MP.

“Some people think you need to know people in politics to open doors for you. Well, you don’t because nobody opened doors for me,” he told Molly. “You just have to work your way up. Start in your own community, become an activist for your local community and build it up from there. If you want to become an MP there is no reason you cannot be.”

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