Should schools hold mock elections?

30th April 2010 at 01:00
Pupils across Britain will be given a taste of democracy next week before the nation goes to the polls. But do these forays into political life have a place in the classroom? Author Ellie Levenson thinks so, but teacher Stephen Petty is not convinced.

Yes - Ellie Levenson

I was in Year 9 during the 1992 general election. I was already interested in politics by then. The day Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 was the first time I had bought a paper of my own, picking up the London Evening Standard on the way home from school. And I had a little experience of delivering leaflets and canvassing with my mum for the Labour party as well as political discussions over the dinner table at home.

Yet as far as my school was concerned, the general election might not have been happening at all - there were no mock elections, no assemblies about what was going on and no mention of it in class.

In fact, it was around this time that I was embroiled in a row at school in which I had been told by a teacher to take off my Amnesty International badge because it was too political. I wouldn't, I said, because I had spotted that teacher wearing a Labour party badge on her coat as she came into school, and if she could wear a badge expressing her beliefs then I should be allowed to as well. She won the argument, saying that she wouldn't wear it in school on her indoor clothes.

Had I been as articulate at the age of 13 as I am now, perhaps I would have argued that actually, she should be wearing her badge on her normal clothes with pride, and be encouraging pupils to do the same. I believe that - providing they support a mainstream party, and not the BNP - teachers should be honest and open about their political beliefs and be encouraged to debate these with their pupils.

This is with the caveat that, of course, the secret ballot is an essential part of democracy (at least since its formal introduction in 1872), and that no one should feel pressured to reveal who they vote for if they don't want to.

But we should be proud of who we choose to vote for and have enough courage in our convictions to back up our decision publicly. Part of living in a democracy is that we tolerate those with different views, discuss our differences, and ultimately stand by the will of the people in allowing the government that the people have elected to do the governing.

In fact, in the 1992 election that took place when I was at school, it is widely thought that the polls got it wrong because people were too embarrassed to admit they would be voting Conservative. Perhaps if pupils were encouraged to debate parties and policies openly, this kind of embarrassment would disappear.

Of course, mock elections don't necessarily always encourage sensible voting patterns. Cath Dean, now an events organiser, remembers a mock election at her school in 1992: "If I recall correctly, all my friends voted for the hot sixth-former who was standing for the Greens, simply on the basis that he was really gorgeous and we all had a massive crush on him. I think Labour won in the end, though. But this was in Durham - Labour wins everything there."

And Adrian Harvey, a policy adviser, remembers losing in his mock election to the candidate with a crowd-pleasing policy: "The first time was in 1979 at primary school when I stood as a Liberal and came second to the Tory. In 1983, we weren't allowed to use real parties so I made up a party loosely based on the Social Democrats and lost to the candidate who promised to dispense free sweets from the tuck shop."

Much to his disappointment, he lost again in 1987 when he stood once more as the Labour candidate and lost to the Conservative, although he did gain something from the experience: "I developed great skills in Letraset (graphic design transfers) and worked the school photocopier to death producing policy-rich and very funny leaflets."

My husband Richard Messingham, a parliamentary adviser, was also a candidate in his school elections in 1997, representing Labour. Perhaps the fact that his school had mock elections and mine didn't is why he is currently a council candidate for Labour and I am not.

His school, Strode's Sixth Form College, was in the staunchly Tory seat of Runnymede and Weybridge, which that year - in both national and school elections - bucked the national trend and elected a Conservative: "I lost by one vote to the Tory candidate - 25 votes to 24, I think," Richard recalls. "And there were three other candidates with fewer votes. The other candidates were Tory, Lib Dem, Referendum Party and an Independent, and all the other candidates except the Tory were friends of mine.

"However, I know that one of our friends didn't know who to vote for and rolled the dice three times, which came up for the Tory candidate. Had he voted for anyone else, it would have been a draw, but instead he voted Tory and I lost."

If all schools held mock elections, and did so every year - general election or not - then pupils would be encouraged to think about policies and their implications and to have more political debates. This might help to ensure that people voted for a party based on a better reason than the roll of a dice, and encourage people to challenge those who do use this method.

If pupils could add to this the knowledge of how their teachers vote, they would be able to see that people have opposing views yet can still work together and show respect - surely a lesson that's too important not to be taught?

  • Ellie Levenson lectures at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is author of `The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism'
    • No - Stephen Petty

      Who are you going to vote for, Sir?" "BNP of course - because I'm worth it." "No seriously, who Sir?" "Oh, I don't know. Maybe I'm swinging towards Monster Raving Loony this time. Anyway, I'm not really supposed to tell you. I might brainwash you."

      That's the kind of evasive answer I usually offer in the run-up to a general election. But I'm beginning to wonder whether I should move on from this supposedly professional display of neutrality. Maybe the time has come to tell my pupils what I really think about it all? Less "professional", but maybe it's for the greater good that I at least try to change the way they think about it.

      I really want to tell them this: that I belong to no political party, that I am much interested in politics and passionate to preserve a democracy that people lost their lives for, but that I find the current party system scarcely any better than a classroom dominated by disruptive pupils.

      That classroom (by which I don't just mean the Commons, by the way, but the whole party-political culture) ought - like all purposeful classrooms - to be a place of informed, considered debate, featuring people free from the intellectual claustrophobia of dogma and party loyalty. Great ideas should emerge.

      But instead, missiles and taunts are hurled from one side of the room to the other. Ringleaders brawl pathetically in the midst of it all. Meanwhile, pupils Fred Truth and Alice Wisdom quietly cower in the corners, largely unheard.

      How can our country and our national provision of education ever advance in such an atmosphere? We rightly encourage our pupils to reject intolerance and tribalism when it appears in the form of gang warfare, football violence or racism. So isn't it time to urge them to reject the current party-political system too? Shouldn't we encourage them to demand a less tribal form of democracy?

      This is why I am against holding mock elections in schools. Why promote such an event and thereby encourage the current primeval party system to take root in the minds of young people?

      School elections are fun, yes, but they are most children's first encounter with politics. Why start them off on such a blinkered, tribal- thinking path? Why encourage pupils to see trench-warfare politics as an acceptable norm for a democracy? Why encourage our students to stand as mock party "candidates" and thus encourage them to assume prejudices that will only serve to limit the way they think about such matters? We should surely fight such a damaging system, not help it to reproduce generations that think in the same kind of two-dimensional way.

      Let's ask pupils instead to consider how the best, most thoughtful decisions are reached elsewhere. Do mature people normally go into meetings with a football fan's mindset, wearing shirts emblazoned with the colours of their favoured tribe? Would such a taking of sides help these people to make sensible choices, to develop the best ideas? Or would it encourage too much ranting and point-scoring?

      I want us to ask pupils whether it might be better to seek some more evolved version of democracy, in which prospective MPs are elected based on what they each want, without the need for them to join a particular party. Then our representatives could, in conjunction with expert opinion, think more freely and without prejudice about future education policy and other matters. MPs could then elect a cabinet that was genuinely full of all the talents, where policy could then be suggested and formulated.

      I would also ask pupils to consider whether a party-free voting system might attract more intelligent, more caring and more open-minded people into Parliament. We can probably all think immediately of at least one friend or colleague who would make a brilliant MP, but who is naturally put off by the simple-minded, primeval version of politics that we face at the moment.

      The young are our only hope of helping our political system to evolve. Current politicians have no incentive to change the system. Nor do newspapers or the rest of the media, which tend to welcome conflict politics because it makes for a better story. Sensibly considered political and economic discussions in which independent individuals reach decisions rarely make for a thrilling headline.

      Party politics has, for decades, blurred and obstructed the path towards real educational wisdom. Education should be in the hands of wise men and women elected for their proven abilities, people who would think carefully, creatively fair-mindedly and intelligently.

      So, as a teacher, I feel I should do all I can to undermine such a system. Does this amount to "brainwashing"? If only. Sadly, I see little chance of my views making much difference. My pupils instinctively reject my taste in clothes, music and leisure pursuits, so I cannot see such a tirade making a difference to what they think. But at least I will feel better for telling them. Maybe I will just have to settle for that - for now at least.

      • Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire
        • How to hold a poll

          Michael Raftery, director of the Hansard Society's citizenship education programme, offers advice for teachers:

          • Get your school's management on side. "There is so much that needs to happen in a mock election, and all the canvassing by pupils can take time out of the normal week. So if you are a teacher, it will be a big help if the SMT is supportive."
          • Bring it into the curriculum creatively. "We know schools where pupils have constructed ballot boxes in design and technology. Pupils can also design campaign websites in ICT, practise speech writing in English and so on."
          • Encourage large campaign teams. "The candidates themselves usually learn the most, but this way more pupils can be involved and it can help stop it being a popularity contest."
          • Involve the real local parties. "They can provide resources for the pupils such as posters and rosettes. It is even better if the local candidates can come in. If they join their student counterparts at a hustings in the school, they can provide them with advice on their speeches and campaigns."
          • Work with other local schools. "We actually collect the results from schools' mock elections by constituency. The campaigns in different schools could learn a lot from each other and should share their discoveries. For example, one group of Green supporters realised they could use green plastic milk bottle tops as the basis for rosettes."


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