Teachers raise their voices, but schools fall silent

5th September 2014 at 01:00
As vote approaches, councils in Scotland ban talk of referendum

North of the border, the subject is never far from anyone's lips. It holds up queues at supermarket checkouts, spices up the school run and fuels sozzled conversations on nights out.

The Scottish independence referendum - the most pivotal decision the people of Scotland have ever been asked to make - is nearly upon us. Postal votes are already piling up and it is less than a fortnight until polling booths open on the morning of 18 September.

The question some 4.2 million voters will be asked is simple: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" The available answers are "Yes" or "No" - there is no middle way on the ballot paper.

Modern Scotland has never been so politically engaged - and with 16- and 17-year-olds eligible to vote for the first time, schools and their students are a major factor in the debate.

The move to allow younger voters was controversial when it was announced in 2012. Political opponents argued that it was a ruse by the Scottish National Party government to boost its support. In fact, although a growing number of under-18s have come out in favour of independence over the past year, a University of Edinburgh survey recently suggested that a majority of that age group still favoured a No vote.

Since many students will have a direct say in the referendum, the onus has been on schools to help them become informed. And for a time, some parts of Scotland rose to the challenge.

Modern studies - a subject unique to Scotland, which deals with current affairs and usually sits alongside history and geography - came into its own. Some schools, too, organised lively debates with speakers from both Yes and No campaigns.

Concerns were not long in surfacing, however. It transpired that a fifth of Scottish secondary schools did not offer modern studies. Moreover, a Scottish Youth Parliament report (bit.lySYPResearch) last year found that many under-18s did not intend to vote because they had learned next to nothing about politics in school.

According to the report, mandatory personal and social education classes, which provide a logical forum for discussing the referendum for the many students who do not take modern studies, "drastically fail" to convey the importance of voting.

And, just as 18 September hoves into view and voters really start to take notice, referendum-related activity has dried up in schools. A TES survey last week revealed that only 12 debates with outside speakers had been organised in the country's 364 state secondaries for the period between the start of the summer term and the vote. Some local authorities have banned schools from even mentioning the referendum during this time.

Concerned teachers believe that an overcautious reading of electoral law has blocked a unique opportunity to engage teenagers in politics. After being told to scrap plans for a referendum debate only days before it was due to take place, one headteacher complained that the event could have had "a profound effect on the political literacy of our school community".

Not all such events have been banned, with Musselburgh Grammar in East Lothian hosting a debate last week. But it is only recently that arguments around the impact of a Yes or No vote on education have come to the fore.

Scotland has always ploughed its own educational furrow - Reformation leader John Knox was demanding a school for every parish way back in 1560 - and responsibility for most decisions on the sector already lies with the Scottish Parliament. As a result, schools and further education colleges have scarcely featured in the debate around independence.

Last month, however, marked the launch of the Teachers for Yes group, which argues that only with full powers over welfare and taxation can Scotland close the stubborn attainment gap between children from rich and poor backgrounds.

An equivalent group has not yet cropped up for the No campaign - unsurprisingly, perhaps, since this has a far less extensive grass-roots network and does not tend to hold public meetings. But No voter and Scottish Labour education spokesperson Kezia Dugdale said she would have switched her alliance if she truly believed independence would close the attainment gap.

The EIS teaching union held the first of four referendum hustings in Aberdeen on Tuesday. Like all teaching unions it has remained scrupulously neutral. But the debate is heating up among school staff. With more than 50,000 teachers working in Scotland, their decisions on 18 September could be crucial.

Debating society

More than 200 pupils sit in the main hall at Musselburgh Grammar just outside Edinburgh, having voluntarily turned up for a debate on the referendum.

The format may be Question Time-like - two politicians for Yes, two for No - but the mood is more unpredictable. Right at the start a boy expected to ask a question on the currency instead throws a curve ball about what independence would mean for the British Army. Others tweet about why it should be Green policy to favour independence, or wonder how Labour can expect credibility on Syria given its record on Iraq. Two girls - one Yes, one No - talked afterwards of national identity and political spin.

Whatever the result is on 18 September, it seems that Scotland's teenagers are more politically engaged than they have been for decades.

What else?

Build engaged citizens with resources on elections, voting, Parliament and politics.

A comprehensive guide to the referendum debate for schools.

This film will help you to discuss identity and voice with primary pupils ahead of the vote.


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