We know of no other country that pulls off this treasured collaboration between schools, advocates and judiciary. Now in its 23rd year the partnership between the national councils of advocates, Inns of Court and the Citizenship Foundation has introduced tens of thousands of young people to a positive experience of the criminal justice system.
The result is genuinely thrilling. It has been a gateway for so many young people; something I can illustrate with an uncanny conversation in a Glasgow pub.
I met an old friend on a recent visit to that city. We did the usual “How’s the family?” and he cheerily related how his daughter’s worrying disinterest in all things educational had been turned around by something called (and he spelt it out slowly) “The Bar Mock Trial”. He went on to elucidate what that was; unaware that I now run the charity that delivers it.
You can imagine the pride I felt. She’s now studying Law at Aberdeen, much to his surprise. I felt I’d played a bit-part in her awakening. But people like you did the real work.
The role of BMT
The real work of the Bar National Mock Trial Competition (BMT) is similar to many effective citizenship education programmes in schools: they take students into the inside of how society works in a way that makes them realise that they are players in it. The students begin to recognise that justice, in the various ways it manifests in democracies, is only as good as the energy we bring to it. And every generation has to step up to play their part in maintaining it.
My friend’s daughter could be your own, having her life trajectory shifted by this unusual opportunity. That’s because we effectively reach into every area of the UK and touch so many elements of our diverse society.
The BMT starts when everyday kids from state schools are invited to join the school team. The school team is paired up with a local advocate to learn to enact the tailor-made court case that each will prosecute and defend. Team members are given a particular role to play out, learning to perform it off-the-cuff when another school is pitted against them. They are then entered into a regional heat at a local criminal court where they do battle with other schools, in turn as Defence then Prosecution. On that day they’re under the scrutiny of a local judge who marks their
performance based on each member’s delivery of their role. The tension is high when the day finishes by announcing who will go through to the National Final.
There are great cheers (and often newspaper coverage) for the winners. You may imagine that hundreds also go home disappointed. But they don’t. The day nearly always ends with students realising just what they gained from taking part. And how the stimulus provided by these hundreds of legal volunteers has given them new skills, new knowledge, and a new perspective on democracy. It’s hard to put a price on that...
...although that’s just what the Government in England has been doing. After ten years of improved implementation of citizenship education, the 2010 coalition put it under the spotlight. To them it was the newcomer subject at a time when the curriculum needed trimming. It was the likely victim in their drive to ‘free up’ school time and allow headteachers greater local autonomy over what they teach.
Backed by big players as varied as the Law Society and Amnesty International, we formed a national coalition to advocate for the subject: ‘Democratic Life’. After three years we won through – keeping the place of education for the law within citizenship and in the National Curriculum, over-and-against the first intention to remove it.
But our victory is somewhat pyrrhic. Partly because the subject had been assumed to be on its way out and many schools have started to down tools (and won’t be inspected by Ofsted for it as things stand). And also because the transition to Academy schools has left around half of the state secondary schools able to opt out of the National Curriculum.
This is unlikely to hinder the Bar National Mock Trial cmpetition and its great work, as it has sufficient support outside the daily class-based teaching of the law. But it will probably hinder other aspects of legal education; particularly the delivery that reaches out to every child in every school.
We’re very distressed about that. We want everyone to be inducted into the citizen’s role as law-abiders, law-keepers and law-makers. This is not as likely to happen now. So can I end with an appeal to you?
If, like me, your heart soars at the idea of each student in today’s schools getting high quality education about the law and all other aspects of citizenship, and you can see why the next generation needs support in becoming democratic insiders (patently clear in every statistic about the growing discontent of the young with today’s public affairs) – then there is work to be done.
The time for talking to the English Government is over: the new curriculum is set in stone, as is the permission to opt out. What isn’t decided is what your local school will do. Or how you might help? (See box.) The history of the Bar National Mock Trial Competition is of a great partnership. It is going to get better and stronger and you are probably a part of it. So finally – as a sincere acknowledgement of just that – can I take this chance to thank the Bar Council, Bar Library, Faculty of Advocates and the Inns of Courts for 23 years of life-changing support in this joint endeavour. Our small but dynamic team has been honoured to play its part alongside you.
Andy Thornton, Chief Executive of the Citizenship Foundation