Editorial: Riding the wave of democratic ardour

20th March 2015 at 00:00

The political engagement of young people was one of the most inspiring features of the independence referendum campaign. But it could have been so much better.

As TESS revealed shortly before the vote ("Schools grow wary of debate as vote looms", 29 August), not everyone welcomed this surge in enthusiasm. Some local authorities, apparently having kittens at the prospect of appearing biased, closed down opportunities to discuss the referendum in schools.

Now the Scottish Parliament's devolution committee has carried out its own investigation and come to much the same conclusion as we did. Pupils' experience of the referendum varied markedly around the country: some were taking part in feisty debates during the week of the 18 September vote; by that stage, others had barely been allowed to utter the word "referendum" for three months.

Timorousness is a more likely explanation than anything sinister. But that doesn't excuse the dereliction of duty: as Green Party general election candidate Ross Greer puts it in this week's News focus (see pages 16-18), teachers being discouraged from engaging pupils in politics marks "a complete failure to prepare young people to be an active part of society".

Greer, 20, is one of a number of remarkably young candidates standing for Scottish seats. The SNP's Mhairi Black, also 20, is trying to topple shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and become Westminster's youngest-ever female MP. Braden Davy, 23, is standing for Labour in Gordon against former first minister Alex Salmond.

Black and Davy have had a bumpy introduction to politics: Black was castigated in a tabloid for injudicious tweeting when she was younger, while Davy came under fire from a popular political blog for decrying nationalism despite attempting to set up a pro-Northumbrian party in his teens.

Both retain the drive to make it in politics, however, because of experiences they had at school. For Davy, a "student voice department" helped him to broaden his horizons beyond the beleaguered mining town where he grew up. For Black, the uniquely Scottish subject of modern studies joined the dots between party politics and the deindustrialisation that blighted her own family.

Black and Davy saw politics as something for the chosen few when they were younger. Both recall outstanding teachers who rebooted their world view, helping them to realise, as Black puts it, that "if you've got something to bring to the table, you should do it".

Research by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust last month found that a disproportionate number of general election candidates across the UK were privately schooled and went to Oxbridge. Teachers with the freedom to bring politics alive can do more than encourage dutiful trudges to the ballot box - they can help build a political class more reflective of the people it represents.



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