'Students aren't apathetic about politics – encourage us to join the education debate'

TES Opinion

Jerdene Wildman Julien, a 17-year-old student from La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls' School, Clapham, writes:

"Ask me my three main priorities for government and I tell you: education, education and education." These were the famous words spoken by Tony Blair at his first speech as the leader of the Labour Party back in October 1996. Nearly 19 years later, education is still at the forefront of all political parties' manifestos and the topic is still fiercely debated between parties.

Last week, I was lucky enough to be present at the TES pre-election hustings in Westminster. The debate featured Nicky Morgan, David Laws and Tristram Hunt – the representatives for the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Labour respectively – discussing the key education policy areas in front of an audience of journalists, teachers, trade union members and viewers watching online.

That there are disagreements between the parties on the best way forward for the UK education system was clear. For example, I asked the panel what they thought about the controversial decision to decouple of the AS and A2 examinations – a decision taken by the government that will directly impact on my life.

As you would expect, The Secretary of State expressed her support for the policy, while her Labour opponent called the changes damaging towards education, despite admitting that he had previously called for fewer exams for students.

I was thrilled to be attending the event and given the chance to ask a question – I was there with education charity Speakers for Schools, which is running a campaign to get more state school students interested in politics. However, I noticed early on that I seemed to be one of the youngest people there, if not the youngest. Granted, this event was aimed more towards those currently working or interested in the teaching profession, but I had expected more teenage students like myself to be present.

It’s not that we aren’t interested. Research for Speakers for Schools shows that 82 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds polled say that they do “care about politics”; 70 per cent want to be actively involved in the political process. 

It is therefore incorrect to say that there has been an increase in political apathy among young people – the 2010 student protests against the increase in tuition fees and the seven million people who have joined the National Union of Students show that students do recognise that the education policies that ministers introduce affects them, and that they would like to have some influence over them.

However, in my opinion there has been an increase in political disillusionment with political parties and politicians. Many, including me to an extent, feel that there is no one particular party that represents our views. This is reflected in the fact that only 37 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds plan to vote in this year’s General Election.

I personally believe that more should be done in schools to encourage young people to get interested in politics. A good starting point would be to hold and publicise more debates like the one I attended, but with an audience primarily made up of students. This would allow ideas for education policies to be suggested by students, as well as forcing politicians to justify their decisions in person.

I have watched debates about education on Question Time and other politics shows on TV, but it was certainly more interesting to watch these three politicians live – talking so passionately about what they and their party believe in. After attending the debate I believe I understand more about what each party offers, and I think that every student should have the chance to do what I did: question politicians about a topic that influences so much of our lives.

Jerdene attended the TES pre-election debate with Speakers for Schools, an independent UK charity launched in 2011, which provides state secondary schools and colleges with assembly talks from a range of industry-leading professionals and academics, free of charge.


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