In this time of political gridlock and polarisation, lowering the voting age to 16 in England would be a step towards a more optimistic and forward-looking democracy. The unspoken assumption made by many who oppose the change, that all young people are secret members of the Jeremy Corbyn fan club, is just another fallacious symptom of the metropolitan myopia.
Until recently, I’d worked most of my career in rural and coastal communities, where it would be easier to believe that giving votes to 16-year-olds would nudge politics to the right. But we should avoid making judgements based on our own limited field of view. In any case, nobody should be prevented from voting just because we fear they might vote the opposite way to us. Not if we believe that they, as human beings, are of equal moral worth to us.
In fact, I think there’s an argument that young people might just have the edge on us when it comes to morality. Any teacher will have witnessed the keen sense of justice that our students possess. At 16, the innocence and idealism of childhood have collided with experience and disappointment, but there is no dull acceptance that this is as good as it gets. Young adults burn to shape the world. They haven’t yet had to compromise their beliefs. Without worrying about a fixed-interest mortgage, dental insurance, or a three-piece sofa on hire-purchase, they can rail against power and authority in a way that we older adults, embarrassingly, cannot. That’s why we need their voices to be heard.
Inspiration for us all
Over the past few months, across the Atlantic, teenagers have taken on one of the most powerful and sinister lobbying groups in the world and have scored victories that should inspire us all. After 14 of their peers and three of their teachers were shot dead in February, a group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida used social media to call out the National Rifle Association and the politicians who were trying to deflect blame from a gun culture in which a teenager was able to access a terrifying assault weapon that the NRA endearingly refers to as “America’s rifle”.
Under the banner "Never Again", these courageous young people organised high-profile rallies and protests, and then stood witness in the gallery as their state legislature continued to vote against control of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But just weeks later, after their campaign drew support from celebrities, ex-presidents and Ivy-league universities, after they convinced numerous major corporations to end their partnerships with the NRA, and after 17-year-old survivor Cameron Kasky publicly challenged Senator Marco Rubio to never again accept donations from the NRA, something shifted. The Florida House of Representatives tightened restrictions on purchasing firearms; its first concession to gun control in 30 years.
Interestingly, a majority of the NRA’s members reported in a poll last year that they felt that their organisation had been “overtaken by lobbyists” and that it had “lost its original purpose and mission”. I think those statements could apply equally to UK politics, as we watch the major parties lurch further from the centre. Meanwhile, further education drops off the agenda because it isn’t of interest to the ideologues on either side of the chamber.
Concentration of power
“Government ministers’ sons and daughters don’t go to FE colleges,” observed a frustrated councillor and former teacher last week, at a meeting to agree a college merger. I visited his area of the North East recently. Shine Trust, a fantastic charity I am proud to work with, has targeted that region due to its high levels of deprivation and the associated difficulties in achieving educational outcomes. I understand Councillor Hannaway’s frustration at a political class that is more likely to have attended Eton than an FE college.
Despite our 21st-century progressive pretensions, we are still a country where power is concentrated around an elite. Who becomes our politicians, lobbyists or journalists is still determined more by privilege than merit, and too many are too eager to pull up the educational drawbridge behind them. In such a climate, expanding participation in our democracy can only be beneficial. Better yet, inducting 16- and 17-year-olds, whose moral compasses still point true, will make us a more just society and will act as a safeguard against those whose power coerces the rest of us into uncritical compliance.
Today, a private member’s bill will be debated by MPs that could lower the voting age in England to 16. This has become the focus of the Fair.Vote campaign, supported by the Association of Colleges and the National Union of Students. Go find out more and show your support.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine