Politics should be open to everyone:Welsh view

27th January 2006 at 00:00
The Welsh Assembly has finally put a date on the school councils'

legislation. By November 1 school council meetings will be taking place in every primary, secondary and special school in Wales.

This is an exciting development. But what about the people at whom this strategy is aimed?

I recently carried out a survey of 150 young people across Wales, asking them what skills they think they need to participate in democracy.

Ninety-six of them believe that standing for election in a school council is a good example of democracy. But, when asked what skills were necessary for them to participate in democracy, the answers were far more telling.

Most of them felt that communication skills were the most vital. Indeed two distinct personalities emerged from the responses. The first was the confident, self-assured person who can express opinions eloquently. The second is the listener, who collects opinions and makes compromises.

While it is ideal that both these qualities can exist in one person, the experience young people have of democracy is quite the opposite. They are told it is about making collective decisions and compromises. Yet the public face of government is eloquent orators expressing their agendas with seemingly little concern for compromise or the opinions of others.

The young people were aware of the often confusing nature of democracy, with one of the respondents citing the ability to look at a situation objectively and deduce facts from exaggerated viewpoints.

For young people aware of the Iraq controversy, facts are a fluid concept in governmental democracy and exist only to serve the agenda of the orator.

It is no surprise, then, that young people are confused by what represents a good skill in democracy. One summed it up by responding, "Being able to stop terrorism."

This may be indicative of another trend which became apparent in the course of the research, that of issue politics.

The same number of respondents who agreed that school councils were good examples of democracy asserted that wearing a wristband or a t-shirt supporting a cause and taking part in a demonstration were good expressions of democracy. When questioned, a further 15 per cent believed that involvement with and support of charities was important in a democracy.

Perhaps one-issue organisations and events appeal to the humanitarian sympathies of the masses - taking into account the beliefs and values of ordinary people and acting upon them. Another possibility is that charity awareness-raising events are consistently more young-person friendly.

A good recent example of this is Live8. Although, six months on, in a classroom in south Wales, no one could explain exactly what Live8 was for and no one recalled the G8 summit, there was a consensus that it had something to do with poverty in Africa.

One of the class even decided that Bob Geldof should tell Tony Blair and George Bush how to deal with Africa.

There is obviously still some way to go as clearly none of the students had fully grasped the Live8 message, despite a plethora of Make Poverty History bands.

Interestingly, this campaigning and critical element goes against the most worrying results in the survey - that you need to conform and be intelligent to make a personal contribution to democracy.

By far the largest number of responses was of things you need to know before you can participate. A lot of the young people felt they did not know the systems and practices in their own schools let alone in governments.

Several asked for "an introduction to politics at school", and felt that languages and social, historical and political knowledge of the world was necessary before you can contribute.

Some suggested that conforming was more important. This emphasises a trend for well-behaved bright youngsters to be picked as council representatives.

The participation strategy needs to challenge attitudes and values, and allow students to participate despite their academic or behavioural performance. And schools need to teach democracy in a manner which shows it as the multi-faceted discipline that it is.

This survey alone has shown democracy to be at once a set of skills, a body of knowledge, a set of attitudes and values and also a variety of actions.

Providing students with the skills to access democracy is the only way that the participation strategy can hope to be a success.

Kate Wolstenholme is assistant education officer at the Council for Education in World Citizenship Cymru

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