I have just been listening to an excellent performance of Earth, Wind and Fire’s September, sung and choreographed by a group of sixth formers from Dunfermline.
They followed hot on the heels of a ceilidh band from Glasgow, who got people dancing to a folk song they had just written with the unconventional combination of a fiddle, a trombone, a saxophone and a ukulele.
Such are the delights of an evening’s entertainment at the national session of the European Youth Parliament (EYP).
It is almost impossible to describe the ethos behind this organisation or its purpose, but it is a vehicle that has propelled many of today’s movers and shakers, as well as Belgium’s foreign minister and David Mitchell.
The EYP models Brussels and the EU in many ways, except that it embraces many more countries, it is run by volunteers on a shoestring and it is relentlessly cheerful and optimistic.
The vibrant positivity of youth drives on the writing of motions, the honing of speeches and the absurd lack of sleep that is inherent in the proceedings.
It is a heady mix of serious debate, detailed political argument and pure silliness that has proved to be an addiction to some of the long-serving alumni and members of the board of trustees.
Step forward one Dan Brown. I taught him in my first class at Ponteland High School – it was Year 10 biology back in 2006 – and he and his twin, Ben, made an instant impression by thanking me at the end of the lesson.
I rewarded them by dragging them to the regional session of the EYP at Durham Town Hall the following year, along with eight other students who were a year older.
Having won it, we then ended up in Durham University writing speeches at two in the morning fuelled by coffee and pizza.
Dan and Ben were a big hit in an arena where quirkiness is celebrated and a pair of identical twins at the nationals two years in a row was memorable.
Dan finally ‘retires’ this year from his post as chairman of the board of trustees of EYP to concentrate on his job in the Secretary of State for Education’s office, so my links with the organisation are nicely bookended over the last 10 years. The structure of the EYP is such that those attending the regional competitions get a glimpse of the ethos of the discussion and the nature of the organisation and then this is amplified at the national session.
Those who get to attend international sessions see the full magnificence of the complex organisation with a week of committee work, motion writing and debate.
Ponteland High School is now well and truly part of the tradition of the competition and it could be argued that state school involvement in organisations like this is really valuable. As a maintained school, we are in the minority, but our delegates do mix with students from every strata of society – from an inner city comprehensive in Leeds to fee paying students from boarding schools and, this year, students from Sweden and Portugal.
A day is given over to making sure they work well together in teams. After we arrived, I barely saw our students, apart from hellos at meal times, as they sat with their new friends from the committees, not in school groups.
Each student is allocated to a committee which mirrors the structure of the European Parliament and they have to work with complete strangers to produce motions that everyone will debate at the general assembly.
The key feature of EYP debating is that it is non–adversarial and so the whole ethos of the session is collaborative as delegates try to produce operative clauses that everyone can get behind. Some of the argument is so complex that it is astonishing that anyone, let alone teenagers, can get to grips with it. Hence the daft singing and dancing.
It doesn’t really matter which motions get passed or which students get selected to progress through the ladder of regional to international sessions, it is the social interaction and opportunities given to participants that are the key thing.
The committee members I have talked to have good friends in every major city in Europe and will couch surf during international sessions.
It is surely no coincidence that Ben Brown started at Durham University in 2010 in the same college we stayed in for EYP for a couple of years earlier.
It is probably no surprise that from captaining the first ever Pont High EYP team, Harriet Jackson went from university to work in Geneva on NGO finance.
Students from Ponteland have used EYP as a springboard to foreign travel and work for the last 10 years.
Dave Hicklenton is assistant headteacher and head of sixth form at Ponteland High School