Just over a week ago, a fourth-year student came bounding up to me in the corridor before class. “I’ve done it, Sir – it’s away!” The puzzled expression on my face clearly gave away the fact that I didn’t have a clue what she was on about, until she continued: “My vote, Sir! It’s away in the post.”
I’m not sure what the equivalent is for other subjects, but for my subject – modern studies, which is distinct to Scotland – students telling you they’ve voted is one of those things they say that makes you both proud and hugely encouraged. You feel yourself rise a wee bit, that you’ve had some kind of impact.
Of course, teaching politics and current affairs is fascinating all year round and nobody will persuade me otherwise, but some of my current classes have had a lucky spell of well-timed world events recently – learning about American politics during a historic presidential election, for example, and about Scottish politics during an equally significant Holyrood election. It brings the theory alive and justifies the reputation of modern studies as the subject that never stands still for long. Some days I wish it would slow down just a little, but only so I don’t have to update my resources quite so often!
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Election 2021: What if teachers wrote manifestos?
In the run-up to polls opening today, students across my classes have been learning about the election and, in particular, thinking about the policy commitments the main political parties have been making. They have looked at the manifestos, including a blind review task where they had to write down what they liked from the five main manifestos without knowing which party they belonged to. It turns out – unsurprisingly – that there were ideas to agree with in every manifesto. Maybe we do have more in common than divides us, after all?
Scottish election 2021: Engaging school students in politics
Students have also been asking lots of questions. The standard question I get asked three or four times a day is “Who are you voting for, sir?” – to which my answer has always been, long before it was popularised by Line of Duty, “No comment.” They usually then try to ask not-very-subtle questions to figure it out anyway.
They have also been asking about the issues that matter to them. “Which party would you say was better on mental health stuff?” or “My mum says this party are the only ones who represent folk like us, so should I vote that way, too?” These are the moments where our focus on critical literacy, on analysing sources and finding evidence to support and oppose a position come into the real-world context – and students are supported to find the answers for themselves.
It’s exciting to see 16- and 17-year-olds able to take part in the democratic process and start the habit of voting while they are at school with the encouragement and support of teachers, without political bias. The only political view I share with them is that I think this should be the norm for all elections.
Mostly, I’ve spent this week asking random people in classes if they’ve voted yet or if they’ve made a plan for voting in today's election. As an obsessive of The West Wing, I have been repeatedly quoting the famous Jed Bartlet line – “decisions are made by those who show up”.
On the basis of the students I’ve been teaching this week, young people will be showing up at polling stations today, and they’ll be helping to make decisions about their nation’s future – and that, in my opinion, is an amazing thing.
Michael Shanks is a modern studies teacher at Park Mains High School in Erskine, Renfrewshire, in Scotland