Rights and reponsibilities

It takes a lot to get Alastair Campbell to go public these days. Yet, faced with the prospect of the British National Party winning council seats in his home town of Burnley earlier this month, even the Prime Minister's spin-doctor-in-chief felt the need to remind us that it only takes good men to do nothing for evil to triumph.

He was also shocked at the low turnout in the first round of the French presidential elections which allowed Jean-Marie Le Pen to grab second place. He, too, is horrified that in this country only 59 per cent of us voted in the General Election a year ago. But then he would be, wouldn't he?

However, we should all be worried when the one group of British electors you might expect would use its votes most, actually used them the least. After waiting, during their teenage years, for the chance to become truly active citizens, you'd have thought that the 18-24 age group would jump at the chance of having their say through the ballot box. Yet it's estimated that only 39 per cent of them did so last June.

Does it matter? Won't they vote more as they mature? Yes, to a degree. But when the General Election turnout is getting steadily worse, and when the number of people voting in the local and European elections begins to make British democracy look like a joke, we must do more to convince the younger generation that voting is important.

That is the answer to those who still oppose the inclusion of citizenship as a statutory part of the national curriculum, something which comes into effect in our secondary schools this September. The Crick committee, of which I was a member and which advised the Government to take that step, bent over backwards to allay the fears of hard-pressed teachers that they simply had no time to do it. As a committee, we pointed out that many schools teach citizenship already, and that it should be left to each of them to decide how best to proceed. But that all young people should be taught not just their rights as citizens but their responsibilities as well, we were in no doubt whatsoever. Nor, in fact, are most teachers.

So, short of making voting compulsory, how do we get the message across to young people that putting a cross on a ballot paper is one of their most important responsibilities as citizens? One answer is to catch them young. At a primary school in an area of Tyneside with a high crime rate, the head teacher gets Newcastle United Football Club to help, showing young people the difference between a game that's played with rules and a referee, and one that isn't. The pupils love it, but they also get an early message about the need for the rule of law.

Although citizenship education is only compulsory from this September for 11 to 16 year-olds, there is already anecdotal evidence, during the present school year, of children arriving from primary schools and asking why, for example, there is no school council at their new place of learning. Many schools find that councils, with or without elections to choose the pupils who serve on them, are a great introduction to democracy in action.

Other schools find that a programme of voluntary service in the community, or the involvement of their pupils in local campaigns to establish or maintain, for example, youth clubs are other routes to the same end.

As the September deadline approaches, Jan Newton, adviser for citizenship at the Department for Education and Skills says she is encouraged by the amount of good practice she has already discovered. "But we are not complacent," she says. "We realise that a considerable number of secondary schools still need a lot of support."

Textbooks and other teaching aids are increasingly coming on to the market, and a number of public bodies and educational charities are also providing practical help. The Citizenship Foundation, for example, runs successful Youth Parliament and Mock Trial competitions. Now it has developed teaching materials, for use alongside its existing publications, like the simple guide to the law, the Young Citizen's Passport (Hodder amp; Stoughton).

But more can and should be done, and not just by schools. For example, the Houses of Parliament recently appointed a "Visitor Manager", but his political masters have decided his first priority should be the arrangements for the general public, rather than the lack of facilities at Westminster for visiting schoolchildren. We can moan about the disengagement of the young from the political process but all of us, including the politicians, need to do our bit to set things right.

Michael Brunson is a trustee of the Citizenship Foundation and former ITN political editor

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