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'It doesn’t work when politicians insist on dumbing down to young people – just ask teachers'

Educators need to be at the forefront of challenging the notion that younger generations are shallow idiots who can’t cope with ideas unless they are delivered by stars of reality TV, writes one leading campaigner

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A bit of advice to political campaigners: next time you want to woo "yoof" voters, dump the expensive advertising agencies and ask some teachers for advice about how to talk to young people. They could have told you in advance that those naff, ludicrous Britain Stronger in Europe videos that hit social media last week would bomb. Every educator knows that the more you try and get "down wiv da kidz", the more they will despise you; and all of the respect will drain away.

So it was utterly predictable and deserved that the risible attempt to use bad spellin’ and punin’ (and the bizarre deletion of the letter "g" from a series of words; #workin, makin, meetin, sharin, ravin, roamin, chattin, shoppin, livin, etc) to encourage millenials to Votin (geddit) on 23 June would be greeted with howls of scorn and mercilessly mocked online. Tory MP James Cleverly had a point when he said: “Clearly someone in their 50s came up with the votin “youth” campaign. It’s so bad I thought it was a parody by the Brexit team.”

According to Scott Townsin, from the design team at advertising agency Venturethree, which was responsible for the videos, “the campaign talks to young people as young people, cutting jargon and cliche… It’s obvious. It’s loud. But we felt, for this audience, it had to be.”  

For this audience it had to be.”

Why? Surely the real cliche is assuming young audiences "don’t do subtle" or listen to anything that isn’t shouty? This whole charade would have been patronising enough if aimed at Years 12 and 13, but the fact that its target age group is 18-29 means its infantilising flashy graphics and excruciating funky techno music were aimed at many old enough to be teachers. This makes it even more of a farce. 

This condescending approach isn’t a one-off either. At the general election, the Use Your Voice online campaign lined up eight celebs such as TOWIE’s Lydia Bright, comedian Matt Richardson and X Factor’s Jake Quickenden to encourage 18-24-year-olds to vote: “Click on the celebrity you’d like to see acting like a FOOL in a bid to get you voting." 

Educators need to be at the forefront of challenging such ubiquitous stereotyping of younger generations as uneducated, shallow idiots who can’t cope with ideas unless delivered by reality TV types. So it’s particularly worrying that the main politician enthusing about the Votin video was none other than education minister Sam Gyimah. You’d have thought that he would have known that the Department for Education is a supporter of many schools’ attempts to ban slang words such as “like” "innit" and "s'up blood" from the classroom (see Harris Academy in Upper Norwood and Essex’s Ongar Academy’s "Elocution for Employment"). 

Lame prejudices about 'the yoof'

Of course, some teachers have form on this sort of thing: it smacks of the same lame prejudices as the "Let's do Shakespeare in street slang to make it relevant” school of thought.  Many of us have railed against gangland versions of Julius Caesar and Macbeth ("I come to bury Caesar, not big him up"; “Our gang of witches surprised the audience with their sassy attitude and street slang vibe on the language of Shakespeare”).  But for any teachers still tempted to assume that the only way to make the Bard relevant is to stage his plays full of "cutting-edge, fresh-from-the-street"  dialogue, delivered by “jive-talking, hoodie-wearing, knife-packing” characters, it’s worth remembering the widespread scorn and ridicule that has been thrown at the Votin by the very generation it was targeting.

Even more insulting than the delivery, is Votin’s message that “Life’s better in the EU”. There was no sign of politics to back this up. Instead, the Britain Stronger in Europe video attempts to reach out to what Gyimah (writing for the Huffington Post) calls the "easyjet generation" and depicts their life’s aspirations as the right to party ("ravin" to strobe lights). They are apparently obsessed with texting and one long slacker holiday: "sharin" is accompanied by an image of a mobile telephone. So much for the creative or entrepreneurial potential of millennials (and note that Gyimah should know better as he was once voted CBI entrepreneur of the future): "makin" is reduced to some random lad spraying graffiti on a wall.

Don’t get me wrong. I am under no illusions: many under-30s are indeed disengaged from this referendum debate. While polling shows that young people are twice as likely to vote remain as to vote leave, only 51 per cent said they were certain to vote at all. But this should mean that we have a serious conversation with anyone 18 or over about how important the referendum is to the future of the country: national freedom, democracy and popular sovereignty are on the line; what’s more, every vote really will count. 

We shouldn’t let young people off the hook; for those moaning that holding the vote during Glastonbury is a problem, perhaps we might remember that if people have the gumption to acquire the hardest-to-buy festival tickets, they might just be capable of registering for a postal vote.

And while I agree about the paucity of intellectual arguments on both sides of the debate, for those Gen X and Y who throw up their hands claiming they are confused by contested facts and analysis, we must insist that they are grown up and take responsibility for finding out for themselves. 

This is one time when digital natives might take to googling and reading the myriad articles, essays and books on the topic to make their mind up. 

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas and a former FE teacher. She tweets as @Fox_Claire

The Institute of Ideas has compiled some background readings/podcasts and films from our archive on the topic of Europe

The IoI is holding an EU debate on Thursday 16 June at the University of East London, Stratford, involving sixth-form debaters. The even is open to all ages.

The accompanying topic guide for the debate contains really useful background reading on all sides of the argument for any “undecideds” (and is a good teaching resource)

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