Making domestic and international politics a key component of secondary education would improve political engagement of young people in the UK.
Politics should become a mandatory core subject at GCSE level and Scottish equivalent. There is currently no option to do this, the closest options given at this level are either ‘citizenship’ or ‘modern studies’ modules, neither of which are mandatory across all British schools. The failure to deliver politics as a stand-alone course perpetuates the exclusion of young people from mainstream political discourse. In schools where neither modern studies nor citizenship are taught, young people become enfranchised at the age of 18 and enter an electorate that can feel foreign and alienating.
The voting system, voters’ rights, political institutions, devolution and the UK’s place in international affairs could all be components of a core GCSE politics course. By having teachers to whom they can pose questions, young students will have a space in which they can freely and impartially explore the political process. Upon finishing a politics GCSE, students will likely feel more at ease with the complex political system that they enter at the age of 18. Through educating 16-year-olds on the basic elements of British politics and international relations, policymakers can debunk the myth that politics is inaccessible for young people. They can prepare a new generation of the electorate who are informed, engaged and curious about politics.
Host pre-referenda debates in school
In the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, young voters were thrust into the spotlight when the voting age was lowered to 16 for the first time in British history. Subsequently, controversy arose when 26 of the 32 Scottish councils restricted the activities of the ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Better Together’ campaigns in secondary schools, effectively barring referendum debates in schools. Such action was taken out of fear that campaigners may influence the way that students would vote – but there is a fine line between influencing and informing.
In barring campaign representatives from secondary schools, local policymakers denied first-time voters a crucial learning opportunity. This becomes even more perplexing given that the voting age had been purposefully lowered to give younger generations a much-needed political voice. Policymakers need to recognise that party debates are a key tool for engaging first-time voters. Of course any political debates held in a school environment must adhere to certain criteria – for example, they should offer a balanced view of party policies, with representatives from both campaigns or all major political parties present. These events should also be held outside of class hours, to ensure minimal disruption to school activities and could be moderated by impartial staff.
Party debates have long been an institution of the British electoral process and a key tool for informing and engaging older voters – young people must not be denied the same opportunity. In a family setting it can be difficult to access impartial information, particularly if family members have already decided on their vote. If young people cannot access balanced information tailored to their needs, then we run the risk of fostering a new generation of voters that are disenchanted with the political process as a whole. Policymakers need to educate young people about their options in general elections and referenda: by giving students a forum where they can ask questions directly to politicians in a safe space, school debates can empower the next generation to be politically active and informed.
If local councils remain unwilling to hold party-led debates in schools, other options must be explored. In the run-up to elections or referenda, student-led class discussions would promote debate and interest in politics. Holding mock elections would inform first-time voters about the voting process and could trigger discussions on the outcome of the mock election. Until mandatory politics modules are in place, professors of modern studies or citizenship should also be encouraged to outline the key issues in any upcoming referendum in an impartial and professional manner. At the very least, schools should offer workshops for students which explain how to register to vote, political rights and the voting process – empowering young people with voter confidence and making the electorate more accessible to first-time voters.
Time after time statistics show that young people do not turn out in high numbers at elections or referenda – this will not change without a drastic new policy approach. Waiting until students reach university may be too late, policymakers need to implement outreach programs that target high school students. If we remain complacent, the UK is in danger of fostering a new generation that is wholly disillusioned with the entire political system.