The future of Scotland is in the hands of teachers

13th September 2013 at 01:00

The final countdown has begun. A year from now, Scotland will be asked to make a historic decision on whether it should be an independent country or remain part of the United Kingdom.

Even those not generally politically minded cannot doubt that the outcome of the referendum in September 2014 will shape the future of the country, not just in terms of its political structure but also economically, culturally and in the way it engages with the rest of the world.

Schools have always played a major part in preparing young people for being active, competent citizens. And in the run-up to the referendum, doing this job well is even more important than ever before (see pages 16-18).

For the first time in a national vote, the voting age has been lowered to 16. "With the vote for 16- and 17-year-olds, young people will be in the spotlight more than ever before," says Kyle Thornton, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament. And they will have to live with the result of the referendum and its implications for longer than any other voter group.

Young people are definitely interested in the debate. A survey by the University of Edinburgh earlier this year showed that more than two-thirds of 14- to 17-year-olds were likely or very likely to vote. Around the same percentage said they would like more information on the referendum before deciding whether to cast a "yes" or a "no" vote.

There will certainly be no shortage of that. Over the coming months, even more than is already the case, young people will be exposed to information and poll results on Scottish independence on an almost daily basis, and will encounter campaigners from all parts of the political spectrum.

More than half the young people questioned in the Edinburgh survey said they had already spoken to people such as their parents and classmates about the issue. And it won't stop there. They may see materials from the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns and witness debates between representatives of both sides on school premises. So the pressure will be on teachers to make sure that their classrooms are a safe place for teenagers to develop their own arguments and learn ways to analyse and filter the onslaught of data.

As a profession, of course, teachers deal with complex and difficult issues on a regular basis, and do so professionally and competently. They will also be able to rely on third-party organisations for support. But they cannot lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with active, interested yet inexperienced voters on an issue that agitates Scots from all walks of life and persuasions in a way that few other topics have managed.

With many expecting the final vote to be much closer than some polls currently suggest, how teachers prepare their students for next year's vote could truly change the future path of this country.

Julia Belgutay@tess.co.uk.

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