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The decision to extend the right to vote to 16-year-olds in Scotland's independence referendum has split the political classes

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The decision to extend the right to vote to 16-year-olds in Scotland's independence referendum has split the political classes

A teenager who turns 16 on the day of the Scottish independence referendum will be allowed to cast a vote, the Scottish government has announced, once the parliament has paved the way. But a recent report by school inspectors has highlighted weaknesses in young people's political literacy skills, which raises the question: are under-18s fit to vote?

One in five Scottish schools has no modern studies specialist and pupils' political literacy skills are suffering as a result, according to the curriculum impact report published at the end of September (Social Studies 3-18, Education Scotland).

But lowering the voting age could help to tackle disaffection, argue modern studies teachers. If young people are still in school when they cast their first vote, it will be easier to highlight the importance of using it, they reason.

Some commentators, however, have concerns about the influence teachers will wield; others believe that 16 is simply too young to vote. Lowering the voting age "degrades politics", claims one academic.

Only 56 per cent of respondents to the Scottish government's referendum consultation agree with extending the franchise (see panel) and young people themselves are divided.

Of the 42,804 who took part in a Scottish Youth Parliament survey, a quarter disagreed with the statement "The minimum age for voting in all elections and referendums should be lowered to 16", while 65 per cent agreed with it, prompting the Scottish Youth Parliament to launch a campaign for votes at 16.

Sixteen- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in the referendum and all other elections and referendums in Scotland thereafter, it believes. It argues that if 16-year-olds can sign up for the armed forces, leave school and get a job, get married and be taxed, they should also be able to vote.

Its call is backed by the Votes at 16 Coalition, which includes NUS Scotland, Barnardo's and the Trades Union Congress. It is also supported by the head of the school of government and public policy at the University of Strathclyde, Professor James Mitchell.

It is "perverse" that their ability to vote is to be a one-off, says Professor Mitchell. Even those who disagree with lowering the voting age question the wisdom of lowering it for just one plebiscite.

The development of political literacy is the main aim of modern studies, writes Henry Maitles, professor of education at the University of the West of Scotland, in the second edition of Scottish Education.

It also aims, he says, to enable pupils to understand the society and world in which they live; to access, handle and evaluate information about that society; promote participation in and respect for democracy; foster open-mindedness; develop an interest in local community, national and international affairs; and develop social skills and the ability to arrive at informed opinions.

The subject chimes perfectly with Curriculum for Excellence, given its central aims to create responsible citizens and effective contributors, argue the subject teachers, and the way in which it is taught is in line with current thinking.

Modern studies has "been characterised by the enthusiasm of teachers and novel methodologies", writes Professor Maitles: "Debate, role-play, dialogue, group work, stages work and the varied use of media and IT have been central to its delivery, especially around elections and participation in particular."

Yet 20 per cent of Scottish secondaries have no modern studies specialist, HM inspectors revealed in their report. As a result, there are "issues" around the breadth of coverage of "people in society, business and economy", one of the three main areas of the social studies curriculum. This is affecting learners' development of political literacy skills, they say.

Primaries are better than secondaries at encouraging critical thinking and independent thinking about political and social issues, they state. But across all sectors "most children and young people do not have a good enough understanding of Scotland developing as a nation or the work and role of the Scottish Parliament".

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first modern studies exam but still the subject is considered new; this is what holds it back, argues Ruth Sharp, president of the Modern Studies Association and faculty head of humanities at Gryffe High in Renfrewshire.

"If a social studies subject specialist is missing, it will be the modern studies teacher," she says. "Often where there is no specialist, it is just that there never has been. I don't think it's a growing problem; it's more a historical problem. It's still perceived as the new subject."

CfE lends weight to the struggle to get more modern studies teachers into schools but some are "fudging the issue", claiming that the experiences and outcomes relevant to the subject are being covered elsewhere, Ms Sharp believes. HM inspectors need to investigate the situation when they visit schools, she says.

She has concerns about a non-specialist trying to explain some of the issues. "The electoral systems, for instance, are so complicated now, it would be difficult for a non-specialist to start to explain the additional member system versus the single transferable vote," she says. "I think some schools are thinking they can tick off the Es and Os in modern studies through PSE, but I'm not sure that's the same quality of experience."

Political literacy among young people is an issue particularly in deprived areas, she points out: "It's highly impacted on by social class, where you have grown up and the emphasis placed on voting in the home."

Jayne Ashley, vice-president of the association and faculty head of social subjects and RME at Glasgow's Springburn Academy, which serves one of the most deprived areas in the city, agrees. "If you feel socially excluded, it's quite difficult to then believe your opinion counts," she says.

Both believe that the franchise should be extended to 16-year-olds, on similar grounds to those put forward by SYP, and like SYP they see the extension of the franchise as an opportunity for schools.

The vote would be a "natural enhancement" of democracy and citizenship education, as it would provide young people with a practical opportunity to learn about voting and political participation, the SYP argues.

Ms Sharp is "quite positive" about the vote being extended more broadly. "If voting started at 16, schools could set in train voting as something you do and explain the reasons why you do it," she says. "We do teach that now, but they are not getting to apply it straight away."

Statistics show that the youngest members of the electorate are the least likely to vote. In the UK election in 2010, just 44 per cent of 18- to 24- year-olds voted, compared with 55 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds and 76 per cent of over-65s.

If you vote once, you are more likely to do so again. Research indicates that most people engage in habitual voting - they either always vote or always abstain.

It is "worrying" that a fifth of schools have no modern studies specialist, says Professor Mitchell. He believes schools have an increasingly important role to play, because of a decline in the standard of the Scottish daily press and the "caricature" of politics that newspapers paint.

"The impression that you get of politics in the press is not one I recognise," he says. "Most politicians are hard-working people committed to their communities and everyday issues, but these get almost no coverage in the daily press, which tends to go for presenting major clashes and splits.

"The biggest problem we face is a press that has sunk incredibly low and is putting people off. That's where something like modern studies is important. Given the opportunity, young and old would understand these people are relevant and important."

Professor Mitchell is in favour of 16-year-olds getting the vote, but describes it as "perverse" that they will be able to vote one year on a major issue like Scotland's constitutional future, but be excluded the next.

"There is an argument that says those still at school are likely to be more engaged in the issues than those aged 18-plus, because they are not learning about them," he says.

There is also less incentive for politicians to take account of the views of young people if they do not have the vote. "I don't buy the argument older generations can look after their interests," he adds.

Neither does the Scottish Youth Parliament; one of the best ways to make sure politicians listen to what young people have to say is through the ballot box, it argues in its response to the UK government's consultation on the referendum process.

The low turnout among the youngest voters is a poor argument for failing to extend the franchise, says the SYP: "Turnout and political engagement is also lower among other groups in society - for instance among socially excluded groups. But any attempts to deny them the right to vote on this basis would, quite rightly, be met by fierce criticism and protest."

Some, however, simply believe that 16 is too young to vote.

Stuart Waiton, a sociology lecturer at the University of Abertay, Dundee, believes under-18s are too immature and have had too little experience of life or responsibilities to get the vote.

While 16-year-olds might be old enough to have jobs and pay taxes, most do not, he argues.

"Only 20 per cent of school-leavers in Scotland have got a job and most of them left (school) at 18, not 16. So how many 16-year-olds have got a job and are paying taxes? Not very many," he says.

"In the Sixties, 16-year-olds would have had jobs, but they did not have the vote because having the vote was seen as the most important decision you could make and it was recognised you should be a more mature and experienced adult to do that. To me, lowering the voting age degrades politics and is a reflection of how unseriously politicians take politics."

He believes that teachers will influence the way their pupils vote. "If I was a teacher and had a group of 16-year-olds I was teaching, I imagine I might influence their thoughts about which way to vote. It might not be intentional, but it's entirely possible. I suspect, for instance, if the BNP were standing in the area, teachers might organise a lesson about the problems of fascism. Should they be doing that? I don't think so."

In the Scottish government's referendum consultation, a common reason given for opposing votes at 16 was that the group would be "too easily influenced by their peers, parents or teachers".

Some teachers are bound to influence the way in which their pupils vote, but it would not be widespread, says MSP Liz Smith, a former modern studies teacher and the Scottish Conservatives' education spokeswoman.

Ms Smith, who is also against extending the franchise, says: "You will always get one or two teachers putting a different slant or perspective on things. I don't think anybody does that deliberately. The vast majority of teachers realise they have a moral duty to give a balanced view."

Ultimately, extending the franchise is likely to "make far less difference than people think" to the outcome of the referendum, says Professor Mitchell.

A low proportion will vote and those who do are likely to be as divided as the rest of the public, he concludes.

118,890 - The number of young people likely to be empowered by lowering the voting age to 16, according to the Scottish government

4.7% - The proportion of S5 and S6 pupils who chose to sit the modern studies Higher this year, making it the seventh most popular Higher

3,950,751 - The number of people registered to vote in the Scottish Parliament election on 5 May last year

50.6% - The proportion of Scots that voted on 5 May, 2011

1 in 5 - The number of Scottish secondaries with no modern studies specialists

44% - The proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds who voted in the 2010 general election


In 2010, 16-year-olds in Scotland voted in the first health-board elections, and they are eligible to vote in elections to the Crofting Commission.

In 2007, after the success of the policy in local elections, Austria extended votes at 16 to the national parliament, but it is still the only EU member to have votes at 16 for all purposes.

In 2006, the Isle of Man decided to extend the franchise to 16- and 17- year-olds, followed swiftly by its fellow British Crown dependencies Jersey and Guernsey.

Sixteen-year-olds in Brazil, Ecuador, Estonia, Cuba and Nicaragua have a basic right to vote, while 16-year-olds in Germany, Switzerland and the Philippines are allowed to vote only in local elections.


Just over half the respondents to the Scottish government's consultation on the independence referendum agreed that 16- and 17-year-olds should get the vote.

More than 24,000 people (24,777) made a comment specifically about the franchise being extended to 16- and 17-year-olds, with 56 per cent supporting the idea; 41 per cent disagreeing, and 2 per cent expressing mixed or unclear views.

Those who favoured extending the franchise frequently pointed out that if 16- and 17-year-olds are able, for example, to get married and join the Army, they should also be allowed to vote at elections. Those in favour also deemed it appropriate because younger people will live with the outcome.

Less commonly, respondents suggested that as potential taxpayers, 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote and it might promote their engagement with the political process.

Those who were not in favour sometimes objected to the change because they believed it was politically motivated, with the current administration believing that 16- and 17-year-olds will be more likely to vote for independence. Others felt they were simply not mature enough.

"This position was often associated with concerns that young people in this age group would be too easily influenced by their peers, parents or teachers."

It was also argued that society does not consider 16- and 17-year-olds responsible enough to buy alcohol or cigarettes, so some respondents questioned why society would consider them mature enough to vote.

For the results of the Scottish government consultation Your Scotland, Your Referendum, see: bit.lySpOM1K


"What future is there for Stranraer?"

This question, posed by a pupil at Stranraer Academy in Dumfries and Galloway, has spawned the creation of Scottish Parliament internships to ensure that school pupils know how to fight for their communities - or any issue that concerns them.

"My heart went out to him," says Labour MSP Graeme Pearson (pictured), to whom the question was directed. "As a teenager something like that never worried me, you always knew you had a future and would go forward."

And so Mr Pearson, former director general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, created Project Parliament, which welcomes its first Stranraer Academy intern Rachael Scott (pictured) to Holyrood this month.

A total of three interns, all senior pupils who had to apply and be interviewed for their roles, will spend three days at the parliament seeing Mr Pearson's office; interviewing him about what he does; meeting the leaders of the parties, the presiding officer and her staff; talking to the people who run the chamber; understanding the role of SPICe, the parliament's information and research service; seeing a debate, and watching First Minister's questions.

Each assistant will report back to their peers about their experience and to Mr Pearson, who is running a monthly surgery at the school between now and June.

"If Scotland is to have a future, it needs young people to take an interest in the democratic process," says Mr Pearson.

Matt Cross, principal teacher of social subjects at Stranraer Academy, says: "This goes far beyond anything schools have done before."

Interns will stay in the capital during their placements, with travel and accommodation costs met by Robert Wiseman Dairies.

If the programme is successful it will be rolled out to other schools, says Mr Pearson.

  • Original print headline: What price the young vote in the Scottish referendum?

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