Let schools play their part in democracy

29th August 2014 at 01:00

Political debate has come alive in Scotland. In pubs, town halls and living rooms, the pros and cons of Scottish independence are being debated with gusto. Taxi drivers, Big Issue sellers and newsagents are eager to share their views; football and the latest box sets have been displaced by polling trends and constitutional structures in chats around late-summer barbecues.

Public meetings are packed every night. Politicians are literally getting on their soapboxes again (Labour MP and No campaigner Jim Murphy set himself a target of 100 impromptu speeches in 100 days) and new ways of campaigning reveal huge levels of interest, as when the #yesbecause Twitter hashtag went viral last week.

It has been described as a "festival of democracy". On 18 September, a turnout of 80 per cent is widely expected. And 16- and 17-year-olds, having the right to vote, are at the centre of it all. So why is the referendum off-limits in so many schools?

The referendum campaign did not click into top gear until recently. This summer's Commonwealth Games absorbed Scotland and it was only afterwards that the country seemed ready to throw itself fully into the debate. It is now, in these final weeks of campaigning, that voters are most keen to explore the issues.

In schools, however, debate has been wound down. There was considerable activity before the summer, far less of it now. A TESS survey finds that, from the start of the new term until 18 September, as few as 11 referendum debates will have been organised in the country's 364 secondary schools (see page 6).

An overly cautious reading of electoral law seems the prime reason. Most councils are reluctant to let Yes and No campaigners anywhere near pupils (honourable exceptions include the Western Isles and Perth and Kinross). Some have closed down any discussion about the referendum. The starkest advice comes from Angus Council: from the start of the term until the vote, "no activity related to the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence should take place within schools".

Earlier this year we reported research showing that teachers - more than parents - were the go-to experts for teenagers seeking information on the subject ("Want to figure out the referendum? Ask a teacher", 28 March). Many teachers, then, are being barred from a crucial role.

There is much talk in Scotland at the moment of placing trust in teachers, of freeing them to exercise skill and judgement in how to approach complex subjects with pupils. Sadly, that laudable aim does not always match reality.

This is a pivotal moment in Scottish history and, for those who despair about political apathy, an uplifting one. Teachers are ideally placed to help young voters make informed judgements. Where councils do not trust teachers to do so, they let down pupils - and they let down the democratic process.

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