Apathy goes when voting is meaningful

29th April 2005 at 01:00
The general public may be slow to use their democratic right but pupils across Scotland are gearing up for their own election day, writes Raymond Ross

Mock elections should be stimulating, interesting and fun for the pupils, says Ron Waddell, the depute headteacher at Firrhill High in the parliamentary constituency of Edinburgh South West.

Perhaps from some of the major parties' points of view, particularly the Labour Party's in this constituency, which is seen as a safe Labour seat, it is just as well that the Y Vote mock elections will have no direct bearing on the general election results.

In 2003, in the run-up to the Scottish Parliament elections, most Firrhill High pupils gave their vote to the Greens, followed (in descending order) by the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Scottish National Party and the Tories, with Labour coming in last and very much least.

The school is now preparing for its mock Westminster election on Tuesday as part of the Y Vote mock elections being run by the Hansard Society, the Electoral Commission and the Department for Education and Skills. The aim is to boost teenagers' interest in politics by providing a unique opportunity to get involved in organising an election at school. About 150 schools in Scotland are taking part.

The 2003 Firrhill High election was run by S6 students and only one day was devoted to it. This time, the candidates are much younger (four from S1 and two from S2), though their speeches are being co-written with S6 pupils, and the campaign and hustings have been building up over three weeks, with mini-manifestos, posters and materials derived from the real-life parties.

"The Hansard materials are very good. They set a good timetable and the pupils are following it in detail," says Mr Waddell, who was formerly the director of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and a past parliamentary candidate himself.

He is expecting a high turn-out for the school's election and there is no shortage of volunteers to help the candidates, organise the hustings, the ballot boxes, voting papers and the count itself. Partly this is because democratic practices are embedded in the school ethos, he says.

"What inspires the pupils is the annual November election for the pupil council," says Mr Waddell. "Anyone can stand by preparing their own 50-word manifesto.

"Last November, our third council election, saw 50 candidates standing, from a school roll of 1100. Thirty class representatives were elected with a 75 per cent turn-out."

Making democracy real, showing that it works, is the key to stimulating pupils' interest, he says. Firrhill High has a very strong pupil council, whose members feel they can change things; they are not just a talking shop and have their own budget. They campaigned for and got more litter bins; they recently introduced recycling bins; and the environmental sub-committee is planning a new school garden.

The pupil council also has a sub-committee to promote healthy eating and another which is implementing a citizenship passport, in which every pupil can receive recognition for helping out in the local community, standing for the pupil council and raising money for charity.

This month the school held a referendum on dress code, in which the older pupils voted to keep the shirtblouse and tie with traditional school logo, while younger pupils wanted a wider range of sweatshirts and hooded tops with a more modern logo. The turn-out was high: 76 per cent voted. Now the results will be considered by the staff and parents.

"There is a perception among our pupils that we are a school which shows democracy in action," says Mr Waddell. "This enhances the ethos of the school because pupils believe democracy works.

"If you show young people democracy working, if they see they can actually change things, then you counter apathy. And if you can do that at school, you can only hope this will transfer to the wider world. Apathy comes from the feeling that voting changes nothing."

At South Morningside Primary, in the parliamentary constituency of Edinburgh South), the pupils are also running the show.

The P7 candidates representing the main political parties, plus two independents, are appealing for votes from their classmates and P5 and P6 pupils. To help, they have materials from the Y Vote mock elections website and some delivered to their homes.

Those not involved with the candidates or party campaigning form a press team to report on proceedings or are part of the election team, who are making the ballot boxes and voting cards and will be manning the polling stations and counting all the votes.

"We are following the Hansard timetable and the whole experience is proving hugely valuable," says Tim Wallace, a principal teacher.

"It's very much about active citizenship; a national and city priority. Our pupils are clear on what their rights are and this exercise will help them to balance rights with responsibilities, respecting the views of others.

"We want them to feel it's worth voting," he says.

The process began with a school assembly to explain the election. From then on, the three P7 teachers involved have taken a back seat, acting as facilitators and empowering the pupils to take on suitable roles and responsibilities.

"The average age of pupils taking part is 12, which is an excellent age to engage them," says Mr Wallace. "In the short term the experience should help develop pupils' research skills, information and communication technology skills, language skills and listening and talking.

"It's cross-curricular and in the long term it's about making them feel they are part of a community and a democratic society."

The Y Vote mock election dovetails with South Morningside Primary's citizenship education strategy, which emphasises that pupils are part of a local and global community. Each candidate has had to come up with a local issue, a ScottishBritish issue and a world issue as part of their manifesto.

In terms of global citizenship, the school has done a lot of work related to the recent tsunami and it is part of the Send my Friend to School campaign associated with the conference of leading economic nations at Gleneagles this summer.

"This is to remind G8 of their pledge that all primary children should be receiving an education by 2010," says Mr Wallace.

"The G8 are far off this target. Estimates suggest it will not be achieved for another 50 years and it's something our pupils feel quite strongly about."

School issues being debated include more playground space, better sports fields and more school trips.

In community terms, environmental issues are being raised. (The school has close links with the local ranger service.) A strong pupil council is aiding the Y Vote process and the election will be linked to the school's bridging project with Boroughmuir High which focuses on the Scottish Parliament.

"The election provides a perfect opportunity to look at the differences between the responsibilities of the Scottish and Westminster parliaments," says Mr Wallace.

"The pupils love the process because it's practical and great fun."

Who will the winner be?

"I wouldn't like to say. I suspect the Greens will do well, but the independents could be the dark horses."



Rebecca Parkinson Scottish Liberal Democrat

"What the Lib Dems are proposing is right. They are trying to stop the spread of dangerous diseases like MRSA and they are opposed to student loans because a lot of students just don't have that kind of money.

"I don't like Tony Blair because of what he's done in Iraq and he acts a little childish. He doesn't seem that concerned about people and the people feel neglected."

Jenna Howieson Labour

"Tony Blair has done a good job as Prime Minister. I will be telling voters that he deserves their support and that he has done a lot for schools and young people.

"I like the way Tony Blair seems to get on well with ordinary people. He seems friendly, approachable and a good listener."

Mark Penfold Scottish National Party

"I see a lot of sense in an independent Scotland and am happy to campaign for this.

"The SNP sent me a lot of good campaigning materials, like balloons, rosettes, flags and things.

"They are supported by Sean Connery and want us to be at the top table, although I'm not sure what that means."

Andrew Underwood Scottish Socialist Party

"The Scottish Socialists are campaigning for a fairer deal for workers.

"People need a decent wage and I support a higher minimum of pound;8 an hour. I will campaign for better conditions at work with more holidays."

Alastair Bartlett Scottish Conservative

"I want to see more being done to clean up hospitals.

"Many hospitals are dirty and patients are dying from the MRSA virus. I think it's terrible that you go into hospital ill and then don't recover because you catch something in the hospital."

Shanice Carlin Brooks Green

"I used to wonder what the party members stood for but now I appreciate that they want to protect the environment.

"I now understand that they campaign on environmental issues and I'm happy to do that since I'm on our pupil council Eco-Schools working group.

"I will persuade voters that a vote for the Greens is a vote for the future."

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