How do you teach politics when your pupils are voters?

Making politics engaging is essential when your students can vote at 16, says teacher Laura Thomas

Laura Thomas

How do you teach politics when your pupils are voters?

With everything that Scotland’s young people have been through in the past year, you would be forgiven for thinking that an election was the last thing on their minds. Despite impending assessments, however, many in our senior classes are keen to participate in the political process. As a modern studies teacher, it’s the dream: young people hungry to take part in democracy.

Anxiety about vulnerable family members, restrictions in school and socially, uncertainty about their next steps – none of this is how they imagined their first taste of the ballot box. But is the wider environment having an impact on how they’re feeling about the Scottish Parliament election?

I asked some of our senior (S4, S5 and S6) pupils what questions or concerns they had about voting for the first time. Some feel uninformed or distracted because of school work and how they’re coping with the return to in-class teaching, but overwhelmingly there appears to be a sense of distrust in politicians. In an election when candidates are relying more and more on social media to reach "the youth vote", a large number of our young people felt uneasy about only being able to see what the parties want them to see.  

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The ability to interrogate party manifestos and deconstruct them is crucial in modern studies, so it’s fantastic that our young people, in the age of "fake news", are using these skills in order to inform their decisions. They’re eager for objective reporting, policy comparisons and looking beyond the spin. But what can we do to encourage this in pupils who don’t pursue the subject past BGE (broad general education)?

Making politics engaging is the key. There’s a way for us to weave the election into lessons across our curriculum, even if the way you introduce it is by mentioning the ballot paper in 2015 which was deemed valid despite the only mark on it being, well, a phallic doodle. It’s admittedly an unconventional and slightly silly hook for a lesson, but can be used in maths to discuss how votes are counted, or in English to demonstrate why reading the instructions on the ballot paper really is quite important.

It was also interesting to see that for some students, the traditional leaflet approach used by major parties is deeply unpopular. We’re encouraging young people to take an interest in the environment and sustainability, yet our political system still churns out and delivers millions of bits of paper each election cycle (it is at this point I will admit to being a deliverer of many such bits of paper, as a former political staffer). The conflict in this has not gone unnoticed by first-time voters working out what their priorities are.

So, if you’re feeling too frustrated or exhausted to vote on Thursday, take heart from our young people. Despite everything, most are planning to use their voice. Just make sure that that’s an "X" on your papers, please – no further doodles are necessary.  

Laura Thomas is a teacher of modern studies and history, based in Scotland

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