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Democracy begins at school

If politicians really want to get the young to vote they should follow the lead of other nations and get them involved in decision-making at school, says David Cutler

henever the General Election comes, one thing is a racing certainty; the turn-out for first-time voters will be lower than ever. All parties say they are worried by "voter apathy" and are laying out plans to get people out to vote. But can we really expect young people to vote when other institutions, including schools, give them so little opportunity or experience in shaping the decisions that affect them?

The facts are that interest in the traditional forms of democracy, party affiliation, membership and voting have been in steady decline since we "never had it so good" in the 1950s. This has been sharpest among young people, with mixed messages coming from research about whether young people will "grow into" party politics.

This picture has been bleak enough for the Government to respond in a number of ways. For the first time, we have a youth minister responsible for listening to children and young people, as well as to co-ordinate strategy supported by a new high-level unit in the Department for Education and Employment. The most important move in schools' education has been to accept the Crick report into the teaching of democracy and citizenship. Despite Chris Woodhead's misgivings, this will be a voluntary part of teaching in primary schools from this September and compulsory in secondaries from September 2002.

So far, citizenship education in England has not concerned itself with involving young people in the school decisions that shape their futures. Emphasis has been placed on active citizenship through volunteering and other links between the school and the wider community. The DFEE has had little to say about (the potentially more controversial subject) of young people's voice and involvement in schools. David Blunkett has indicated that he wishes to have a "light touch" on the issue.

Something very different is happening not very far away - a kind of early dividend from devolution. In Wales, the National Assembly is consulting on its partnership framework for work with children and young people. It is taking as the basis of the strategy the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), including Article 12, which states that the views of a young person should be listened to on issues which affect him or her wherever reasonably possible. The UK has ratified the UNCRC. Far from shying away from the issue, the assembly states that there should be student councils in all schools. It goes on to assert that these need tobe given more than lip service and that this will require a change of culture in some schools. Not only will student councils concern themselves with school life but, by secondary level, they will look outside and be involved in local authority partnerships looking at broader community issues.

In Scotland, almost all matters immediately affecting young people are in the remit of the Scottish Executive, and the Scottish Parliament can pass primary legislation. The Standards in Scotland's Schools Act 2000 also borrows from the language of the UNCRC and puts forward the views of children as one of its three principles. The legislation specifies that the education authority is to have regard to a child's views so far as is reasonably practicable and take into account their age and maturity. The education authority must also show how it had done this in drawing up its education improvement objectives, and the headteacher must demonstrate how she or he has done this for the school development plan. The head also needs to prove that the views of pupils will be sought in the everyday running of the school.

Last year in a study of practice in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Germany, Professor Lynn Davies and Gordon Kirkpatrick found that all these countries were doing much more to promote pupil democracy than the UK. This picture is changing swiftly in the cases of Wales and Scotland. In England, the issue still seems to be on the back burner. Some schools do a great deal both by involvement in projects and the development of whole-school policies on subjects such as bullying. Some even go so far as giving young people a role regarding the recruitment of senior teachers and the budget. But all this depends on the goodwill of the headteacher and the governors and is subject to change.

The crunch may come when citizenship education forms part of the curriculum. How seriously will pupils take the suggestion that they should aim to be active citizens, when that seems to apply everywhere but at school?

Changes here may help our dismal performance in a league table which David Blunkett may be less familiar with. In 1998, a survey asked young people aged 14-16 if they had been told at school about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which includes their right to be heard. Some 68 per cent of young people in India said yes, followed by 53 per cent in Zimbabwe, with only 43.5 per cent in Botswana. Northern Ireland schools trailed somewhat scoring 6 per cent...

David Cutler is director of the Carnegie Young People Initiative, designed to increase youth involvement in public decision-making

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