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When is it too young to start learning about democracy?

It has often been argued that you can never be too young to learn about democracy, as democracy is part and parcel of our everyday lives. But is this true and how should we teach about democracy?

The importance of learning about democracy was recognised by the British government in 2002 when they included ‘Citizenship’ into the National Curriculum. The Democratic Life Coalition states Citizenship is now fundamental to young people’s education; ‘Citizenship education is essential for preparing young people for our shared democratic life.’

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Some may ask why it is important for young people to learn about democracy. The Citizenship Foundation outlines three fundamental reasons why democracy is important in any young person’s education. Firstly it is an ideal tool for young people to learn about British values, secondly it can help young people form opinions on issues surrounding them and form soft skills which employers deem crucial, and lastly elements of citizenship appear in other areas of the curriculum.

Aside from this, in order for a full democracy to exist it needs active and informed citizens, who wish to contribute in order to have a political system which is representative and fair.

This has been a recent criticism of the apathetic youth, who are lacking interest in politics. According to Debating Europe in 2014 European Union Election we had the lowest youth turn out in history standing at 28% in the 2014. There are many reasons for this, one being a lack of trust in political institutions from those who are aged between 18-24, but also it has been shown that a lack of education and understanding is contributing to young people not being interested in voting.

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During one of involver’s (@doingdemocracy) sessions at Europe House teaching young people about the EU, we were able to draw an easy comparisons about how much is understood about democracy at different ages.

In the morning we held a session with an international junior school, I was surprised at their understanding of the principles of democracy as well as their understanding of the EU and how countries come together through the European Union. Although they didn’t have the same understanding or knowledge of current issues surrounding the European Union they did understand the basics around sharing of resources and the importance of everyone having their say. In the afternoon I was again surprised as we held a session with a group of 18 year college students debating on whether Turkey should be allowed to join the EU. They eloquently spoke for a minute representing their political groups’ views, taking into account Turkey’s geographical positions and human rights record. Through this experience I would therefore suggest that children from school age should be taught about democracy, but to different degrees, particularly explaining why democracy affects their lives so much. If this is taught from an early age, it may go some way to having a less politically apathetic youth.

There is also the recent question of whether young people currently participate enough in politics to be knowledgeable enough to vote in the EU referendum? This is a contentious issue, and rather than punishing the youth by excluding them from the referendum, it would be more positive to look at how we can encourage further youth participation in politics. Looking at figures from Debating Europe, 65% of young people image3believe that voting will not change anything as well as 61% stating that they were not sufficiently informed enough to vote. This shows that education is a crucial area which can be used to increase youth participation in politics. One way in which this could be achieved is through more young people being part of youth organisations, figures from Debating Europe currently show that only 22% of young people belong to a youth organisation.

Organisations such as Involver can make a difference in this with their mission to helps young people to have a say in the places they go and the services they use. They further support organisations across the world, large and small to engage with young people in a meaningful, open and democratic way. They do this through workshops and debates at Europe House and in schools.

Leila, Young Trainee

 


2 comments

  1. I have been asked to lead school council. I am aware in previous years the ‘school council’ has never made an impact on the children or school. They didn’t have meetings as no time was allocated to report back to class. I have agreed to take this on – and when I do something I want to do it justice. However as an NQT I don’t know where to start!
    I would like to know in brief how it is organised – I am thinking if I can approach my Head with linking school council to the new curriculum and British Values, I may stand a chance of restructuring ‘school council’ in my school.

    1. Linking to British Values, SMSC and the Prevent Strategy are absolutely things you should do to get your SLT on side. I’ll put up a post shortly with links to the relevant sections of Ofsted & DfE guidance.
      In terms of a structure I would strongly recommend that you don’t use the structure most schools use. We propose an alternative here: Steps towards a Smart School Council
      The first thing is to define the learning outcomes. Then think about which students you want this to be for. Build a structure from there. I would be very surprised if what you come up with is something similar to what most schools have, which actually excludes most students and teaches some pretty negative lessons about democracy, empowerment and responsibility.
      We’re really keen to help so please do post again, email or call if you want to talk anything through.

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