I WENT back to school last week with a visit to Higher Failsworth Primary.
Rebecca Eade, a teacher at Stansfield Street, invited me along and I’m indebted to her and all the staff there because it proved an inspiring experience.
I was asked to talk about Oldham Council and what Ward Members do.
My audience was 25 children who were all Year Five pupils, aged just nine.
Even at that relatively tender age they were far less apathetic than those sweeping generalisations you often hear made about young people being “uninterested” in current affairs and finding politics a total “turn-off”.
You simply can’t stereotype young people as a uniform group like that and I was astonished by some of the topics they asked me about.
This particular group has been doing a project which seeks to work out – by pitting politicians against pop stars – who has the most influence in the world today?
It’s an interesting question and one they’ve taken to with relish.
I was shown letters they’ve sent to the Prime Minister and other politicians, which I sincerely hope they’ll get answers to.
They also clearly pay keen attention to what their Mums and Dads are talking about at home.
You could almost hear their parent’s own voices and phrases in the room as they stepped up to quiz me about Oldham town centre, or the disruption caused by Metrolink roadworks.
It wasn’t just local issues that interested them either.
I was astonished when one boy asked me what I thought about Government proposals to increase the Motorway speed limit – and blow away when another then asked me to explain more about Scottish independence might mean!
The work they’d all done beforehand was a real credit to them, the school and their parents, and I was mightily impressed.
Although I am now Council Leader, I also remain a Ward Member and think visits like this are hugely important.
Getting out regularly to see a range of people in your area should be the bread and butter through which Councillors engage with residents. It’s how we take the pulse of the public and provide visible civic leadership – and we should do it across all age ranges.
The evening before my ‘school trip’, I had attended Full Council at which we did our first ever live Public Question Time – taking questions via email, Twitter and Facebook.
I thought this was a huge success as the pace of the meeting and calibre of the questions was markedly better than any I can recall before it.
It was also much more of a test for Members, as it should be, and a huge step forward in making our meetings more accessible, accountable and relevant to the public.
I must close this week by paying tribute to Ken Hulme, whose death I was shocked to hear about last Friday.
As a resident, and then later as a Saddleworth Parish Councillor, Ken was often a critical thorn in the side of Oldham Council – but that is no bad thing for democracy.
Ken engaged with decision-makers rather than sniping from the sidelines. He put people on the spot and fought with tireless energy for causes, so the people of Delph have lost a real community champion.
My thoughts are with his family and friends at what must be a very difficult time.
Thanks for listening,