Whether or not 16 and 17 year olds should be given the vote has been an ongoing argument for some time now. But it has come back on the agenda with the recent enfranchisement of this age group in the Scottish Independence referendum. Added to this, Ed Miliband has recently announced it is the intention of the Labour Party to further enfranchise 16 and 17 year olds. As things stand, the Conservative Party are still opposed to this extension. In the spirit of full disclosure I should declare that it has long been my position that young people should have the right to vote – as full members of society it is a simple matter of equality that they should be given the right to democratic participation. As it is, young people are still seen as ‘human becomings’ or ‘citizens-in-the-making’ rather than citizens with the ability to make reasoned decisions. The recent experience of working with young people in the Independence Referendum has firmly cemented the belief in my mind that young people are just as capable as their older contemporaries in making political decisions based on considered reasoning. But simply giving young people the right to vote will not ‘fix’ democracy – and alone will not get young people out to vote. Young people, like all age groups need a reason to vote and need to feel involved (as was the case during the referendum).
One of the key things to come out of the Independence Referendum was that schools can play a crucial role in encouraging young people to engage in the political process. Dr Jan Eicchorn and colleagues carried out a quantitative study with over 1000 young participants looking at their level of political interest and compared these results with parents and adults. Some of the key findings make for interesting reading and rebut some of the common charges laid at their door:
- Young people are not uncritically mimicking parents in voting decision – over 40% voted a different way from their parents
- Young people who discussed the referendum with parents did not feel more confident having done so
- Young people are not less politically engaged than adults
- Where young people discussed the referendum at school, their confidence did increase
They conclude by stating ‘that young people who do not get the chance to discuss politics in an informed manner in the classroom miss out. There is no other institution that seems to be able to create the same positive effect on political confidence’. This mirrors other research which suggests that the socialising influence that school possesses can play a significant role in arming young people with the skill, knowledge, critical capacity and confidence to engage in the political sphere. Plutzer (2002) found that turnout in a first election is crucial in leaving a ‘participative footprint’ in one’s voting ‘career’. Because young people are embedded in what could be a highly productive social environment at school it is lamentable that we are not using that space more to encourage young people to participate in politics.
In terms of my own research into this matter, the young people I interviewed over the summer were less than complementary about the ‘citizenship education’ they received at school. In their opinion (and other research backs this up) the political education they receive is not political at all – rather it revolves around their social responsibilities and encourages them to engage in ‘pro-social’ behaviour (i,e. don’t drink, don’t take drugs, volunteer etc). If we are serious about engaging young people in democracy this undoubtedly needs to be addressed.
As things stand, and as I have written elsewhere, young people at the moment feel that politics is something that is done to them and not with them. Young people feel alienated from politics (I have little doubt that many adults feel this way too). The problem is not with young people here, however. On the contrary, the fault lies with our political class who have rode roughshod over the wishes of young people, nary blinking for a moment as it did so (Iraq, tuition fees and EMA to name but three issues). How do we expect young people to respond?
So how can educators contribute to the re-engagement of young people in the political sphere? I have some tentative suggestions based on reading and my own research:
- The young people I worked with during the referendum enthused about activities such as debates, meetings, hustings and voting. This means a re-conception of young people, from ‘citizens-in-the-making’ to ‘citizens-in-the-here-and-now’. These were not just mock events (although some were) but involved politicians coming to the school and truly engaging young people, looking for their votes. The young people felt that they were taken seriously. The young people felt involved. The young people felt engaged. It is little surprise that these activities and events had an impact.
- Secondly, this means prioritising the social aspect of educational practice. Democracy is not learned in isolation, but in co-operation, argument and action – all of which were highlighted as important (and enjoyable) aspects of the experience of the young people over the last two years. This means prioritising group learning. This also involves a serious step change from the current ‘political’ education which individualises young people and looks to address social dysfunction. Young people are not blind to this and from my discussions with young people they actively enjoy working with each other. This should be encouraged as Warren and Mira (2008) note, ‘as young people build relationships, talk with each other about their values and the issues they face, they build some shared understandings and a sense of common interests’ (p30). Only by engaging in dialogue, reflection and praxis with others will young people begin to unpack the issues that limit their political participation as a collective and offer a starting point for a response. And, after all, isn’t association, dialogue, reflection and praxis the very essence of a healthy democracy in any case?
- Thirdly, it was clear from the interviews that the young people all placed a high value on participation at the local level, offering them the opportunity to participate directly and engage with others. This undoubtedly shaped their political participation as they sought opportunities out-with the school which failed to satisfy their motivation to become involved. Getting young people out into their local communities to be political is (and should be) a key facet of their political education. In other words, citizenship education as it stands is detached from the lives of young people outside the school and a one-size-fits-all approach seems doomed to failure unless it takes into account the contextual factors that constitute their everyday lives. And this means educators have to pay attention to the micro-politics of young people’s lives. Much research has highlighted the importance of family, peers, media and the broader social networks on political participation and attention should be paid to these, if not drawn upon to boost participation.
- The final lesson to draw from the experiences of these young people is the issue of power. It was apparent that the participants embrace those political activities where they have a sense of power in the immediacy – attending demonstrations, signing petitions, taking part in debates and being out in their communities talking to people. In other words, having an active role in shaping what is going on around them. Without attendance to this fact young people will inevitably be switched off from a citizenship agenda that prioritises a vision of a good citizen as someone who ‘pulls their weight’ and takes responsibility for themselves. Framed in this way and without any reference to political power young people will, quite rightly, seek alternate ways within which to represent themselves and their political views. But herein lies the rub – if young people continue to be misrecognised as ‘citizens-in-the-making’ or worse, as ‘domestic extremists‘ when they do demonstrate against issues that impinge on their lives, then their participation will continue to be ignored.
This is, of course, a two way street. Politics and politicians must recognise that they have utterly failed to take into account the issues that young people feel are important. They have been ignored, mistreated, marginalised and patronised with citizenship education as it stands. Simply giving young people the vote is not enough. Their interests and issues need to be given consideration and taken seriously. But above all young people want to learn about politics, want to be involved in politics and want to be able to influence politics. This is a fact that needs to be embraced. We need to allow them to do so, the fact that we aren’t says more about us than it does about young people. Give young people the right to vote at 16 and let us use those years, at school, to constructively work with young people to aid their transition into the political sphere. We have much to teach them but just as importantly, young people have much to teach us – this is democracy. The exclusion of young people from the political domain is not only negative for them – it impoverishes the overall debate if we miss out on the contribution of a potentially politically fertile section of the population. And it ultimately calls into question how democratic we truly are if we’re comfortable continuing as we are, with less than 50% of the youth cohort choosing to vote in general elections. The bottom line – this is about respect.
Plutzer, E. (2002). ‘Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 96, (1). pp. 41-56.
Warren, M.R. & Mira, M. (2008). ‘Youth organizing: From youth development to school reform’, New Directions for Youth Development, Issue 117, pp27-42