Why teachers need to cast a vote for clarity

With 16-year-olds now eligible to take part in the independence referendum and the campaign hotting up on both sides, schools are under pressure to provide a balanced view

Julia Belgutay

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In a year's time, Scottish people will go to the polls to decide whether the country should remain a part of the UK or become independent. And, since the Scottish Parliament has passed legislation to lower the voting age in time for the referendum, 16-year-olds will have a say on the country's destiny.

As Scotland counts down the days until the vote on 18 September next year, and as campaigners on both sides of the argument step up their efforts to make their voices heard, it is increasingly clear that schools will be under extra pressure to prepare their students for the deluge of information coming their way.

Not only will schools be expected to equip their students with the political literacy and critical thinking skills to enable them to make sense of the debate, but they will face added scrutiny as young people look to them for guidance.

The Scottish government passed the amendment to the voting age just before breaking up for the summer recess. As a result of that legislation, more than 120,000 young people currently below the age of 18 will have their say in the referendum. The move means that students will play a key role in deciding their country's future.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of headteachers' union School Leaders Scotland, believes that the referendum places schools in a novel situation.

"First, there is the business of making sure young people are eligible to vote," he said. "Second, there is political literacy. And the third one is the hard one. How do you raise the issues around the referendum without being biased in any shape or form? Teachers are in a difficult position."

The issue has already prompted Edinburgh City Council to write to headteachers reminding them that a teacher's role is to facilitate "fair and balanced discussions allowing for different views to be expressed", and that they should "avoid sharing their own political views". The move attracted strong criticism from teachers and unions alike.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said there was no question that teachers could be trusted to deliver this information in a balanced way, as they were professionals who were more than capable of keeping their own views out of the discussion.

"Teachers will use this as a learning opportunity," he added. "The only concern schools have is that politicians will try to exploit the situation because they see students as a vote."

Recent research published by the University of Edinburgh appears to back these concerns. In a survey of more than 1,000 14- to 17-year-olds, more than two-thirds of those questioned said they were likely to vote in the referendum. When asked whether they thought Scotland should be an independent country, 60.3 per cent answered no, 20.9 per cent said yes and only 18.8 per cent were undecided. However, 67.2 per cent said they would like more information before they made their final decision next year, meaning that, whatever their current view, they could be persuaded to change their minds.

The survey's figures highlight the need for young people to receive reliable, balanced information; it also suggests that they could end up a target for political campaigning as the referendum looms.

Pulled in two directions

While young people are likely to gather information from a number of sources, such as family and friends, many will also rely heavily on their schools. At the same time, the two competing campaign groups, Better Together and Yes Scotland, are trying to find their way into classrooms in a bid to convince young people of their arguments.

In June, Better Together was criticised by Yes Scotland for proposing to provide every school with materials setting out its arguments. While Yes Scotland also intended to provide information packs for schools, it argued that Better Together's plans were an attempt to "politicise children's education".

The pro-union campaign now says that its materials are available to teachers only on request. A spokesman told TESS that the pack included a "variety of independent research materials and a mock debate kit that will allow pupils to critically engage with the referendum debate".

"The information contained in our education pack is written from the Better Together point of view, but we encourage teachers to seek out materials from our opponents and independent experts," he added.

Ross Greer, youth and student coordinator for Yes Scotland, said that the campaign body had waited for the recently published guidance from Education Scotland on political literacy before finalising its information with the help of young people.

"We are keen to be working with schools," Mr Greer said, adding that the material that was sent out would be heavily influenced by the young people involved in the campaign.

While some may harbour concerns over the jostling by both sides to gain influence in the classroom, others believe there is a case for providing campaign materials in schools.

Jan Eichhorn, one of the authors of the University of Edinburgh study, argued that young people were looking for precise answers to concrete questions. Being able to analyse the material provided by both sides in lessons could help them learn how to distinguish facts from political spin, he said.

Dr Eichhorn's team will be producing teaching materials of its own, containing information and activities ranging from straightforward worksheets to ideas on how to stimulate debates based around the survey's findings. "It is important to enable young people to understand different types of information and understand where data comes from," he said.

As polls and surveys start flooding in and young people are exposed to news about the referendum on a daily basis, teachers will be able to use resources from a variety of third parties to help get their students ready.

Education Scotland has recently published a Curriculum for Excellence briefing on political literacy. While it is not limited to the referendum and, in fact, makes barely any mention of it, a spokeswoman said it was intended to "support one of the purposes of Curriculum for Excellence, which is to help children and young people to become responsible citizens, able to understand the importance and responsibility of participating in political, economic, social and cultural life". The organisation will also continue to publish good-practice case studies on political literacy on its website.

The Electoral Commission is also planning to publish materials for schools on its website, and will in October launch a campaign to encourage young people to register to vote.

"Many young people won't know they need to register to vote or the different options available to them, so we need to make sure that information gets to them," said John McCormick, electoral commissioner for Scotland.

"Teachers and youth workers can play an important role in helping to make sure young people have the skills and confidence to critically analyse the campaign arguments before reaching their own view."

Campaigners on both sides are keenly aware of how important the youth vote will be on polling day. "With the vote for 16- and 17-year-olds, young people will be in the spotlight more than ever before," said Kyle Thornton, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament.

But, as Mr Greer of Yes Scotland pointed out, there was another crucial reason that students needed to be ready for the vote in 2014: "Young people will have to live with the result much longer than anyone else," he said.

In or out?

60.3% - Percentage of 14- to 17-year-olds living in Scotland who answered `No' when asked if Scotland should be an independent country

20.9% - Percentage who said `Yes'

67.2% - Percentage who said they would like more information before they make a final decision

69.1% - Percentage who said they are "rather likely" or "very likely" to vote in the referendum

In the debating chamber: `Question Time' comes to Aberdeen

Campaign materials are not the only way for competing political positions to be represented in schools. To ensure that both views get an equal airing, a number of schools are now planning referendum debates.

Oldmachar Academy in Aberdeen is one of those schools, and next week students and staff will be holding a Question Time-style event exactly one year ahead of the big vote.

Headteacher Derek Brown said he hoped the event for S4, S5 and S6 students would help them to develop their sense of political literacy and readiness to participate in the process.

"One of the reasons we are doing this is to demonstrate political neutrality. We wanted to give young people the chance to hear both sides of the campaign," he said.

Two representatives from each of the campaigns will speak - a professional politician and a youth rep - and the debate will be led by an independent chair.

Students will prepare questions in advance, both in modern studies classes and at home.

Before and after the event, an electronic vote will take place to assess the impact of the different contributions on the students' views. The result of this will be shared with students and fed back to the two campaigns.

Photo credit: Reuters

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Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay

Julia Belgutay is head of FE at Tes

Find me on Twitter @JBelgutay

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