Local councillors are going into classrooms to awaken interest in politics, reports Vicky Anning
Officials at Warwickshire County Council have devised a novel way of bringing democracy to life in schools - by bringing local councillors into the classroom.
Starting this term, councillors from across Warwickshire will give a series of lessons to pupils in the county's primary and secondary schools to explain just how local government works and to get young people excited about democracy.
Warwickshire's Democracy Lives! project was born 18 months ago, when teachers realised they could benefit from support at a local level with the citizenship curriculum and councillors realised that they needed more help in providing that support.
"Schools were grappling with the political literacy dimension of the citizenship curriculum," explains Tess White, the county's adviser on PSHE and citizenship. "Alongside that, councillors wanted to engage with young people."
Tess and her colleagues at the county council brought together a group of local politicians, teachers, youth workers and advisers to work out a plan of action. They came up with a resource pack full of interactive 50-minute lesson plans on topics ranging from the role of the political party to decision-making in Warwickshire. The units can be adapted for pupils as young as seven and as old as 19.
"Traditionally councillors have gone into schools and delivered a presentation," says Tess. "But we wanted something more interactive than that."
The Democracy Lives! resource pack contains scenario cards, ballot papers and tips about transforming a classroom into a council chamber. It was sent out to all the county's 170 primary and secondary schools late last year, and already schools are starting to register their interest.
"This is a great opportunity," says Julia Morris, headteacher at Kineton High School. "It enables real life councillors to meet young people, and young people to get to know councillors. They can see that councillors are not just bureaucrats. And there's a mutual benefit because teenagers tend to get a bad press.
"The school is a microcosm of the wider community and we encourage our pupils to join in. I think it's very important that young people understand the community they live in, how they're represented and how democracy lives. That's why I was so keen to get involved with this project."
And while the idea of visiting speakers isn't new at Kineton High School, the head is eager to see how councillors will fare when they swap the council chamber for a classroom of 20 to 25 pupils.
Admittedly, some of the county's 62 councillors feel a bit daunted by the prospect. Most of them haven't stepped inside a classroom for several decades, and while the youngest councillor in Warwickshire is in his 30s, the majority are in their 50s or older, so there's a generation gap to contend with. But all the councillors involved in the Democracy Lives! project receive training before they are let loose in the classroom.
Protocols have been developed so councillors don't turn their lesson into a party political broadcast. And teachers will always be on hand during the lessons in case things go awry.
After attending the first training session last year, Councillor John Burton is raring to go and looking forward to his first school visit. A retired lecturer with the Ministry of Defence, he feels positive about the opportunity to engage with young people. Armed with memories of a local MP visiting his army unit to talk about the British constitution when he was a young man during the Second World War, he is hoping to help young people to re-engage with politics.
"One of my basic fears is use it or lose it," he says. "We're in danger of losing democracy by default. I'd like youngsters to grow up with a greater understanding of who does what. And I'd like to see a lot more young people coming into politics."
One in three people failed to vote at the last local election in Warwickshire and voter turnout is frequently higher for contestants in reality shows such as Big Brother or the X Factor than for local elections.
So officials are hoping that the collaboration between schools and councillors will encourage more young people to vote and get involved in local politics.
Tess White says: "It's really to make young people aware that they can make a difference and affect the democratic process. The project allows young people to see that local democracy and local government matter in their lives and they have the opportunity to influence decisions which affect them now and in the future."
While Democracy Lives! is thought to be one of the first projects of its kind in the country, Tess is keen to get the message over and to help other authorities develop similar packs for their own region.
Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has identified a lack of citizenship resources that engage students and capture their enthusiasm.
The report, Connecting with Citizenship Education, revealed that, while there are numerous teaching resources to choose from, there are a limited number that relate to everyday life and real experience. The research also found that teachers would benefit from more practical and age-specific resources that encourage real student engagement.
Teachers and pupils found textbooks and worksheets limiting because they did not promote active learning, while resources that support active citizenship, particularly interactive and visual ICT and web-based resources, were seen as the most useful tools. Resources that stimulate lively classroom discussion were regarded as particularly valuable and visiting speakers were singled out as useful and enjoyable.
The research was commissioned by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) to find out the extent of the connection between the citizenship curriculum and the government's five-year strategy to increase public understanding of democracy and rights.
The report strongly recommends increased training for teachers and help in the identification and better use of existing resources. It also suggests the creation of a web portal that brings together the best websites and resources.
NFER's research will inform the work of a new Public Legal Education Task Force set up by the DCA to identify strategies to increase citizens'
awareness and understanding of their legal rights and responsibilities and how they can put this into practice in their lives.
David Kerr, NFER's principal research officer says: "Citizenship really can be a very powerful subject which deals with issues that young people are interested in. If you can make it real, you are much more likely to engage their interest and imagination."
* Connecting with Citizenship Education - A Mapping Study is at www.nfer.ac.uk