Young people deserve a voice – and schools should amplify it

We must challenge the vitriol directed at pupils like climate activist Greta Thunberg who demand a say in public debate

Students should be able to debate

The online vitriol directed at 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg has been breathtaking. The most egregious example – taking into account that, with nearly 70,000 Twitter followers, he is not some easily ignored troll – came from high-profile Brexit backer Arron Banks. As Thunberg began a transatlantic trip to two climate summits in the US, he tweeted: “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August …”

You’d imagine this would dissuade other politically minded teens from putting their head above the parapet – why expose yourself to such bile? And that, of course, is precisely the point.

We’ve seen this countless times before: a group that is generally underrepresented in public forums has the audacity to pipe up with some opinions, only to find that their contribution uncorks a tirade of abuse with a scarcely concealed message: get back in your box. Women know this. LGBT people know this. And young activists such as Thunberg are also, sadly, growing accustomed to it.

If they decide it’s just not worth it, then public debate continues to be dominated by a much narrower group of people; consequently, the priorities of those left muted and on the margins are more easily ignored.

Schools have gone some way towards helping young people be heard, with the idea of pupil voice gaining a fair amount of traction. It would appear, however, that there is some way to go. Last week at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as part of the EduMod series of events, seven members of the Scottish Youth Parliament were asked to discuss this question: are young people’s voices being heard? They painted a very mixed picture. One said that while pupil voice was broadly encouraged by teachers, the degree to which it played out in some schools was “abysmal”.

Don’t expect pupils to be grateful if they’re asked what colour their new common room should be painted – they want to be asked about more fundamental school matters. As one young speaker said, they do not expect all their ideas to be taken on board by school senior management, but they do want to be taken seriously.

Genuinely embracing the idea of pupil voice is not easy. As Tes Scotland discovered earlier this year (“Voice activated”, 12 April), it requires some big changes in schools, most notably in the relationship between teachers and pupils. At the Royal High School in Edinburgh, for example, head Pauline Walker recognised sensitivities around pupils passing judgement on teachers’ practice – but added that it would be illogical to encourage pupils to think deeply about geopolitical issues but give them no say over what was happening right in front of them.

In this era of Brexit, Donald Trump and potentially catastrophic climate change, it feels more important than ever not only that young people are clued-up about the world around them but also that schools are unequivocally helping them to be confident and articulate in expressing their views. Pupils need to know they will be taken seriously and can have genuine influence on events around them.

The wider world provides mixed messages. Politicians entrusted 16- and 17-year-olds with votes for Scottish Parliament elections and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, for example, but not for Westminster elections and the 2016 EU referendum. Similarly, there are more opportunities than ever for young people to disseminate their thoughts through social media, and yet traditional media outlets still routinely fall back on stereotypes of them, from feckless players of computer games to knife-wielding thugs.

You could forgive teenagers for feeling disengaged from a world that regards them with fear, derision or even hostility. The tragedy would be if schools, rather than challenging such views, tacitly reinforced them.

@Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 23 August 2019 issue under the headline “Young people deserve a voice – and schools should amplify it”