Democracy still a mystery to pupils

Report shows up political ignorance in schools. James Graham reports

Teenagers should be taught the true meaning of democracy because they have no idea how it works in practice, say authors of a new study.

Findings from the Council for Education in World Citizenship-Cymru survey reveal many young people believe they have to be academically bright to speak out in school debates. Many also did not realise they had the right to participate in the democratic process, and believe schools are ruled by a "hidden hierarchy" from which they are excluded.

The research comes as many Welsh schools are setting up school councils - a statutory requirement in Wales by November. Wales is leading Britain in giving schoolchildren a voice in the democratic process of running their school.

However, the CECW-Cymru, a charity that promotes active citizenship, said pupils must first understand what democracy is to make school councils fully democratic. The charity is working alongside ACCAC, the Welsh qualifications, curriculum and assessment authority, to develop more focused lessons in democracy aimed specifically at 13 to 15-year-olds.

Kate Wolstenholme, assistant education officer at CECW-Cymru and author of the report, said citizenship lessons on democratic processes needed to be broadened.

"In the current framework, democracy is only mentioned in the community aspect," she said.

"The guidance says students will know about the Welsh democratic process and the impact of democracy on the world. But it's not just about knowing how governments work - it's knowing how to behave and participate in the democratic process."

CECW-Cymru interviewed 150 pupils in 10 Welsh schools. Half of the young people interviewed were from socially-deprived Communities First areas where adult voter apathy is often a barrier to local democracy. The pupils were asked to identify the knowledge and skills required to take part in democracy in school, in Wales, and in the wider world.

However, pupils struggled to come up with answers on how they were part of the democratic process.

Miss Wolstenholme said: "This suggests they have little experience of democracy outside school, and lack of knowledge seems the biggest barrier to participation."

A significant number of respondents cited academic ability as the main skill required to take part in democratic processes.

By November 1 all schools, including special schools, will be expected to have held their first of six annual council meetings.

Sara Reid, the assistant children's commissioner for Wales, said it was essential that school councils were not seen as closed or elitist groups.

She said: "Schools need to consider not just a method of election that allows the less typical pupils to come forward, but also how the views of children throughout the school can be represented within the school council.

"If their experience of citizenship is a good one early on, they will feel less apathetic when they grow up."

John Valentine Williams, ACCAC's chief executive said: "We have worked very closely with CECW-Cymru and we will be carefully considering its recommendations."

The revised personal and social education framework is to be implemented in September 2008. ACCAC wants it to reflect Assembly policies and to ensure clearer links with the other elements of the school curriculum.

It will also be extended to include 16 to 19-year-olds.

Caldicot school, in Monmouthshire, has a well-established school council and has also developed a pupil liaison group, which is described as the cabinet of the school council.

But headteacher Susan Gwyer-Roberts said the 50-strong council was not elitist. "We get quite a wide mix. We even had one of our naughtiest boys on the council, just before he was permanently excluded.

"We don't seem to have the problem the report suggests. The council is not made up of the academically elite, it's a good representation."

The CECW-Cymru research found that most pupils (96 out of 150) believed that standing for election to school councils was a good example of democracy.

A similar proportion also named wearing a charity wristband or a t-shirt supporting a cause, or taking part in demonstrations. But six months after the high-profile Live8 concert, children in south Wales could not explain what it was about - only that it had "something to do with poverty in Africa".

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