Why schools play such an important role in creating strong and stable democracies
In the run-up to the 2017 general election, the issue of youth voting has once again returned to the fore in public debate, much as it did in 2015. Schools play an important role in helping young people develop the skills and confidence to become active citizens, as well as active voters.
As part of our research project, Being young in Brexit Britain, we have been talking to young people aged 15-29 about their attitudes towards, and aspirations after, Brexit. And based on our interviews, both perspectives somewhat overstate the impact of Brexit on young people's propensity to vote in the 2017 election.
For one, while some are anxious and angry about the impact of Brexit, for many, the shock of the referendum result has now worn off and they are currently far more preoccupied about issues that have more immediate impact on their day-to-day lives (such as sitting exams, getting jobs, or finding somewhere to live). It's not that young people think that Brexit doesn't matter, it's that they are not yet sure how Brexit will matter for them personally, as there is so much uncertainty about how and when Brexit will have an impact on day-to-day life. Until this uncertainty is cleared up, even the most ardent of young Remainers, who were ‘shocked, surprised and really angry’ in the immediate aftermath of the result, now describe themselves as ‘resigned and waiting to see what happens/can be done’.
Moreover, while Brexit may have turned the British political landscape upside down, many of the underlying factors that shape youth political engagement remain unchanged since 2015. Most of the young people we have interviewed (for this and other projects) don't have high levels of knowledge about politics or the political system; as a result, they often don't feel confident enough to cast their vote. Often, it is their parents' prompting that gets them to the polling station.
But while parents play a key role in getting the youth vote out, it's important to remember that young citizens' values, attitudes and behaviours are learned rather than inherited; schools, therefore, also have an important role to play. This role goes beyond simply teaching about politics (although this is important), but also involves helping young people develop the skills and confidence to become active citizens (as well as active voters). These skills and dispositions are transmitted through the curriculum – and indeed, through activities like Mock Elections that the Hansard Society supports (and which I have written about on this site before).
However, students also learn these skills and dispositions through the hidden curriculum and the general school climate. Schools are microcosms of democracy, and when students feel that they have a voice at school, and that they can discuss controversial issues openly with teachers and peers, students not only develop critical thinking skills, but they are also more likely to have higher levels of trust and tolerance. These are key skills and dispositions that have been associated with the development of citizenship and democracy.
Likewise, teachers and school leaders are role models, leading by example, not just through their teaching of subject matter, but also in the ways inwhich they moderate student discussions in classrooms, and/ or allow studentsto participate in school decision-making. These actions send a powerful signal to students about whose opinion counts; and by extension, about who is to be included in decision-making in society as a whole.
In fact, addressing social inequalities is arguably one of the most important roles that schools can play in supporting youth political engagement and strong democratic institutions. We know that young people that do not go on to university are less likely to vote, especially if they leave school with few or no qualifications. Apathy, at least about Westminster politics, is also widespread among young people with the lowest qualifications. One could argue that this group have become not just disengaged, but disenfranchised. Because of their formative role in young lives, however, schools can help to redress this by ensuring that all their students have an opportunity to learn about citizenship and politics (formally and informally) in an open, democratic climate that places student voice at the centre of its decision-making. It is only when we achieve this will we be on our way to building a strong and stable democracy.