Why silence youths? Involve them in the political process

27th April 2012 at 01:00
After all, the outcome of the independence referendum will affect them the most

Why shouldn't 16- and 17-year-olds have their voices heard at the ballot box? Giving young adults - our current S2 and S3 school pupils - the right to vote in the 2014 referendum on independence for Scotland would reflect a widely-held vision of what we as a progressive, rights- respecting country could become.

This is not a political or partisan view. It's about promoting young people's participation in political processes, and increasing the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. It is Scotland's young people who will live with the outcome of that vote - one of the most significant choices people here are ever likely to make.

I am sure many teachers would agree that the quality of young people's ideas, and the passion with which they express their views, demonstrates just how enthused many of them are - especially when they have a stake in the issues.

One of the most significant changes within schools over the past 10 years has been the growth of democratic processes such as school councils, pupil consultation and mock elections.

I recently attended an event in Glasgow where three primary schools had come together to form a model parliament. This meant there were three first ministers, three finance ministers, three education ministers, and so on. The actions they took and the way they articulated themselves showed me that the wisdom of children and young people does not just apply to 16- and 17-year-olds, but to all ages.

With the right motivation, young people can be politically engaged. At a time when there is concern about falling voter turnout, we should be exploring how to promote and involve pupils in political processes.

Due to election cycles, many young people do not get to exercise their right to vote in a general election until they are in their twenties. Research has shown that if young people vote early, they may continue to vote throughout their lives, resulting in improved voter turnout for all and stronger democratic institutions.

So imagine that by the time pupils are in S3S4, they are also joining the electoral register. This tangible symbol of their rights would make theoretical discussions about elections, parliaments and political parties infinitely more meaningful. After all, they could be exercising their right to vote before they leave school - in S5 or S6 - instead of having to wait at least five years (and possibly as long as seven) by which time many will have lost interest.

Scotland will define its future through the referendum. We should seize the opportunity to affirm our respect for young people's rights - and ensure that 16- and 17-year-olds have their say in this referendum, and in all future polls.

Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People.

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