Referendum gets pupils' political juices flowing

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Scottish students `more engaged' with subject than in rest of UK

Young people in Scotland are more engaged with politics than their peers in the rest of the UK - and schools have played a key role, according to new research.

Academics at the University of Edinburgh found that almost two-thirds of 16- and 17-year-olds in Scotland had talked to their friends and families in the run-up to the general election about how the UK was governed, compared with just over a third of their counterparts south of the border.

Previous research by the academics prior to last year's independence referendum also recorded a high level of interest and engagement with politics among 16- and 17-year-olds in Scotland, who were allowed to participate in a national vote for the first time.

Discussing political issues in the classroom was a contentious issue, however, with some critics arguing that young people could be easily influenced.

But Jan Eichhorn, a chancellor's fellow for social policy at the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of the report, told TESS that the research showed that young people in Scotland were more likely to want to vote, partly owing to their experience in school.

`Positive effects'

"There are distinct positive effects from discussions in schools," Dr Eichhorn said. "What we need now is access in schools to modern studies and things like civic education, but we also need discussions of politics in the classroom. It is not enough to just teach the political system."

The researchers will present their findings at an event in Edinburgh next week. The results are based on a survey of 800 16- and 17-year-olds across the UK. The purpose of the work is to establish whether the referendum and early enfranchisement have had a lasting impact, and what part schools and education play in forming political attitudes.

The research reveals that schools have a significant role in engaging young people with the democratic process. Students who discussed political issues in the classroom were more likely to say they would vote, and also more likely to state that how the UK was governed made a difference to their lives.

Dr Eichhorn said that despite opportunities to discuss political issues in the classroom being more common in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, he was concerned about the inequalities that could arise from local authorities making the decision about whether to allow political discussion in the classroom.

"There is a real democratic issue here," he said. "We can't have a postcode lottery in terms of ability to take part in the democratic process."

The researcher submitted his views in evidence to the Scottish Parliament's devolution committee report on lowering the voting age. The committee has echoed his calls for national guidance on political discussions in schools.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said: "The referendum highlighted young people's enthusiasm and determination to make their voices heard about Scotland's future. Our decision to extend the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds in the referendum legislation contributed to the unprecedented level of democratic engagement in the process. It is also why, with cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament, we are legislating to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election."

Another report published last year by University of Glasgow researchers analysed the views of young people in Scotland (bit.lyUniversityofGlasgow_report) between March and August. Some 38 per cent of pupils reported a lot of discussion about the independence referendum at school, while 46 per cent said there was a little and 14 per cent were aware of none.

Many teachers saw modern studies as the primary or only subject area for addressing political issues. A slight majority said they were against young people being able to vote at the age of 16.

`Strong advantage'

Dave Keenan, a principal teacher of modern studies at St John's High School in Dundee, says that young people at his school are "quite keen to engage" with politics.

"Modern studies is a subject we don't really have in other parts of the UK, so we have got that strong advantage," he says.

"I think once kids begin engaging in the wider field of modern studies, like civic education, they build up an appreciation and some [political] literacy."

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