‘Whoever wins next week, we must use the EU debate to instil a love of democracy in young people'
As a country, we are on the brink of economic and social pandemonium. We are at risk of a mournful farewell of a relationship born in 1973, a relationship "united in diversity".
My stance is clear on the EU debate: vote remain. It is more agreeable and exciting, perhaps, to develop one’s position within a new democratic family than to divorce oneself from it. However, this article is not about my opinion – it’s about engaging young people in the process of democracy. While the existence of the referendum and its potential outcome causes the adrenal gland to work harder, its presence is a fantastic opportunity to ensure that students are participating in the debate.
Despite the referendum and the signalling of an opportunity to partake in policy debate, many young people feel alienated from politics. The reasons for this are plenty, but my bet is that the shouting of absurd (and often fictional) statistics and statements is probably right up there. Indeed, a recent YouGov poll suggests that 45 per cent of young people see the EU debate as "two groups of old men shouting at each other".
The crux of the issue here is that in order for our society to grow, it is our young people that need to be active, not passive, in democracy. In the 2015 general election, Ipsos Mori data revealed that less than half of 18-24 year olds voted – despite the increasing ease of access to a voting card. YouGov also suggests that only 20 per cent of Britons under 25 would vote for Brexit which perpetuates the necessity for the youth to be key decision-makers in the 23 June vote.
The Britain Stronger In Europe and Vote Leave campaigns are built, in my opinion, on galvanising collaborative communities and scaremongering, respectively. The latter campaign is winning hearts and minds among the uneducated and ill-informed. Those who are not engrossed in the debate are subject to brainwashing by intimidating and daunting statistics and prognostications.
It should not be like this: the EU referendum should not just be a platform to make an important decision but a vehicle for better engagement in building a democratic, equal, just society.
British students should learn, for example, from their counterparts in Nigeria, who have been actively protesting against soaring tuition fees, overcrowded facilities and rising living costs. They could take a lot from the Nigerian students' approach to mobilising each other to affect change.
Cynicism is rife
However, expecting a transformative shift in participation may be ambitious. In the Scottish Referendum last year, ICM reported that 75 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds voted, compared with 54 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds. Why a fifth more teenagers voted in a debate that would have little direct impact on them in the short-term raises interesting questions. One could argue that it became trendy to vote or that being given a responsibility when one previously had none was empowering.
Or perhaps it is that as a person reaches maturity, they become more cynical about the democratic process, the promises from politicians or the impact that one vote has on the majority?
In a recent townhall event in London, Barack Obama implored a young audience not to just believe and feel the right things but to fight for their ideals, be engaged and active, speak out and listen. It’s easy to be passive and to be a sponge to rhetoric, especially when the debates appear to be transient. But when the debates end, the issues still remain.
We need to spend time, whether it’s within the PSHE curriculum or in assemblies to continue this message to the young people we work with. They must be taught to stand up for what they believe in. I know many schools around the country, including my own, devote a great deal of effort to encouraging student voice and student councils; these are critical in ensuring that students feel their views are represented in their respective microcosms. Once they see that they can make a small difference, they will feel that their voice is worth hearing. Confucius said: "The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones."
This message is being heralded across sixth forms around the country by the US ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun. He has delivered talks about change and set up a grass-roots community network, Young Leaders UK, which connects young British leaders around the country who have the courage to care and who inspire care in others. These change-makers have grown from a community of four to 1,000 in the space of a year or so. This has all developed through referrals – through young people mobilising others to be involved. There is a crucial learning opportunity here: young people are engaged when they are empowered to participate and where they feel progress can be made with a collective voice.
This is why we need to encourage our students to get involved with programmes such as Bite the Ballot, which help young people become change-makers. We need them to take part in debating clubs so that students are learning how to develop their points of view so that they feel confident that others will listen to their points of view. With only 20 per cent of the young people eligible to vote wanting to Leave the EU, it’s critical that they don’t feel that there is an adult hegemony over opinions and that they feel they can access and participate in the EU debate.
We must act now, as educators first but also as citizens who feel a duty to engage young people in their right to be key decision-makers in society. We need to ensure that they are informed, guided and able to challenge the status quo. We must develop in them a sense of hope that they can be part of progressing their society. We must instil in them this hope so they can feel confident galvanising and mobilising others to get involved, too.
Whatever the result, let’s hope we build drivers of positive change.
Oliver Beach is an inner-London economics teacher, Teach First graduate and star of BBC series Tough Young Teachers. He tweets as @olivermbeach
Speakers for Schools and TES are hosting a live post-Brexit referendum panel with Robert Peston on 30 June. Find out more here