Give them the vote

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Schools must give young people more of a say if they are to grow up believing in the democratic ideal, says Andrew Mellor

How important is democracy to young people? Falling turnouts at elections and growing scepticism about politicians could lead one to believe that the answer is, "not very much." However, this is contradicted by the findings of opinion polls which suggest that Scotland's Parliament is far more popular among the young than the old.

This complex picture may reflect the contradictory messages schools sometimes give about democracy. Adults say it is important, teach about it, and even set up pupil councils to allow young people to experience democracy at first hand. The best school councils are vibrant institutions which allow open debate within clear guidelines. Adults support the work of these councils with a light touch and allow young people to take binding decisions about matters that are devolved to the council.

These councils have real (but not necessarily extensive) powers and a budget. Mechanisms are created which allow regular discussions between elected councillors and their pupil constituents.

Unfortunately, too many pupil councils fall a long way short of this ideal.

Some are "chaired" by an adult - sending a message that this task is too difficult for young people to perform. Others are only allowed to hold meetings at inconvenient times outside the normal school day. And, in the name of "consultation", some are merely used to rubber-stamp decisions already taken by adults.

This, surely, is not what the Scottish Parliament intended when it included within the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act (2000) a requirement that headteachers should seek to involve pupils when "decisions require to be made concerning the everyday running of the school".

Pupil councils are just one way of involving pupils in decision-making.

Some schools have used questionnaires or class meetings. However, if we are to comply with the intention of the Act it is not good enough merely to list consultative strategies. We need to take a step back and think about why democracy in schools and the wider community is important.

Speaking about the continued presence of British troops in Iraq, Tony Blair gave a utilitarian explanation: "It's simply that I believe democracy there means security here."

We might also believe that, in general, democracy is simply a better and fairer way of running things than autocracy. But, from the narrower point of view of the two networks that I manage, democracy in schools is important because it is a vital element of a participative ethos, in which all members of school communities (young and old) feel some sense of ownership over the values and practices of their schools.

Children learn more effectively if they are allowed to talk about what should be learnt and they are less likely to bully others if their school has an anti-bullying policy which they themselves have helped to devise. It also follows that all adult members of the school community, including parents and non-teaching staff, should feel similarly involved.

However, these are only some of the reasons why schools should take up the challenge of democracy. The centrepiece of our latest special newsletter is an article by Ben Levin, Deputy Minister of Education in Ontario in Canada, in which Dr Levin states that democracy in education has many facets. For example, mass access to education is a condition for democracy, and the governance and management of schools should be as democratic as possible.

The curriculum should include education about citizenship and the practices of the school should prepare young people for citizenship. However, as Dr Levin says, "learning about political participation is hollow if one is unable to exercise political participation".

For this to happen effectively, for consultation to go beyond mere tokenism, educators must be able to overcome perhaps their biggest fear - the fear of losing control.

Democracy in schools starts with pupils being encouraged to take more day to day responsibility for their own learning programmes. The experience of Scottish schools which have taken the risk and genuinely started to share power is a positive one. At least it is in those schools where there has been clarity about which powers are to be shared and which, for good reasons, must be retained within management.

If, as the Prime Minister believes, the democratic ideal is worth risking the lives of young men barely old enough to vote, then it is doubly important that educators are not frightened of the challenge of democracy in schools. If it is that important, then it is surely worth taking the risk of allowing young people to experience some of its benefits for themselves.

Andrew Mellor is manager of the Anti-Bullying Network and the Scottish Schools Ethos Network.

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