Politically engaged youth increasingly keen to vote yes

13th June 2014 at 01:00
Although majority would still opt for status quo, survey finds

Teenagers are more inclined to vote yes in September's Scottish independence referendum than they were a year ago, according to research by the University of Edinburgh.

The second survey of more than 1,000 14- to 17-year-olds assessing their views on the referendum shows that 30 per cent feel Scotland should be an independent country, compared with 23 per cent last year. Nevertheless, more than half (52 per cent) support the status quo - although this is down on last year's figure of 58 per cent. The percentage of those who are undecided has fallen slightly from 19 per cent to 18 per cent.

The 100-day countdown to the referendum began this week. The national vote on the 18 September will be the first in which 16- to 18-year-olds are able to have their say.

But despite the referendum debate dominating the Scottish news agenda over the past year, 61 per cent of the young people questioned maintained that they would like more information before they finally decided.

"Last year, over two-thirds wanted more information; this year, we found there was a very slight decrease. And most of that shift seems to come on the Yes side," said Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of the study.

Schools had a "special role" to play in filling the information gap, co-author and chancellor's fellow in social policy Dr Jan Eichhorn said. "From our work, we have seen that young people want to discuss politics in school. They trust school and they want real factual information. They also value the space in which they can discuss their own views," he told TESS.

The new survey shows that most 14- to 16-year-olds have now addressed the referendum at school. Participation in classroom discussions was most common among those old enough to vote - 73 per cent of 16-year-olds, compared with 64 per cent of 14-year-olds. Similar proportions of young people had talked about the referendum with parents and friends.

The researchers also looked at the impact that modern studies lessons have had on young people's attitudes. "We found no clear evidence that students taking modern studies are less likely to find politics too complicated," said Dr Michael Rosie, director of the Institute of Governance and another of the survey's authors.

"What we did find is that modern studies students are more likely to think they have enough information to make a decision," he added. "In that sense, modern studies is important because it makes young people, whatever their choice, feel more confident about their choice."

Professor Paterson said that a strong modern studies department would have more subtle influences that were not captured by the survey question. Staff from other departments, such as history, could call on its resources and expertise, and students across the whole school would benefit. It was also probable that those who chose modern studies already had an affinity with politics, he added.

Analysis of the data stresses that overall, contrary to popular belief, young people are invested in politics, with 59 per cent saying that they had some or a great deal of interest in it.

"A year of debate has not put people off. What is more, young people are more interested than adults," Professor Paterson said. "There is a high level of interest in politics. Hardly anybody is saying they have no interest in politics at all."

To support teachers across Scotland, the academics plan to update the teachers' resource pack launched last December with the new survey data. The pack focuses on how to engage students with survey information. The academics have asked artist Menna Jenkins to add illustrations to make the new and existing resources more accessible and appealing.

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