12th October 2012 Articles
“There are no GCSEs in values, or league tables for citizenship”, Estelle Morris, former education secretary, once remarked. Yet values and citizenship ought to be integral to 21st century education, and the UK is too half-hearted about the role of schools in building citizens and citizenship.
We complain that teenagers show too little responsibility, yet give them too little responsibility. We complain there’s not enough volunteering and social commitment among the young, yet neither is encouraged within a modern education. Nor is the act of voting. We complain that young people do not vote – only 44 per cent of 18 to 29-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election – yet most of them do not get to cast their first general election vote until they’re 20 or older. Furthermore, virtually no attempt is made to engage teenagers and young adults in local government.
We cannot carry on expecting democracy and social responsibility to be learned spontaneously or informally, and then complain when this doesn’t happen.
Political education should start early. One benefit of secondary schools having sixth forms is that sixth-formers can be great role models for younger teenagers, and are capable of taking on significant responsibility within schools as prefects, in organising and leading extracurricular activities, and in decision-making. Sixth-formers, in particular, are good judges of the bona fides of teachers and headteachers, and they can play a valuable role in the selection of teachers and school leaders.
School councils also play an important role. Most secondary schools now have an elected school council, and, increasingly, they’re given real tasks and budgets. I’m a convert to there being elected school councils in primary schools, since I visited Millfields primary school in a highly deprived part of Hackney and watched the school council, including children as young as six and seven, discuss bullying, school food, and the state of the school toilets.
It’s essential to relate citizenship in schools to important practical objectives, and A-levels should be reformed to include the ‘community, action, service’ element of the International Baccalaureate. Good schools foster and reward these activities anyway, but giving them formal recognition in the exam system, and in UCAS forms, would help further.
Voting is a critical responsibility of citizenship, and the political debate and campaigns which precede voting are the most intense exercise of democracy in our national life. Young people should be able to vote at 16, so that political debate and democracy fully include them, and so that they start to consider and discuss while still at school how to use their vote. Sixteen is the age of responsibility in most other spheres, and it’s hard to make an argument of principle against giving the vote to 16-year-olds when it already happens in Austria, Brazil and the Isle of Man. As with votes for women and lowering the voting age to 18, I expect that votes at 16 will become the international norm, and England could and should lead the way.
Alongside extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, there should be a polling station in every secondary school in local and national elections, turning on its head the perversity of some schools being closed on polling day so that the ‘adults’ can get on with democracy. Just as schools’ mock exams lead to real public exams for older students, so mock elections should lead to real elections for older students. This would give the teaching of citizenship a practical objective, and politicians and candidates would treat teenagers as serious constituents if they knew their electoral prospects depended upon it.
Likewise, it should be possible to become a local councillor at 16, and parties should actively promote younger candidates, including sixth-formers, to stand for council elections, just as they have in recent years promoted women and ethnic minority candidates.
Few local councils have young councillors, yet education and children’s services are among their main responsibilities. Leeds, I discovered on a recent visit, has more councillors aged over 75 than under 35. No wonder young people find local government remote, and no wonder civic engagement by the young is negligible, when it ought to be a hallmark of modern society.
Schools should also become community hubs. It’s wasteful to invest in state-of-the-art school facilities, including sports facilities, cafes, restaurants and theatres, and for them to be barely used for a quarter of the year, and closed at weekends and half the working day even when schools are in session. Access becomes more urgent as other community services close or face closure due to public spending cuts. Imaginative solutions for the co-location of services – public libraries, health centres, post offices, community centres – on school sites should be explored. With innovation and imagination, more ambitious projects would be possible.
A good example of such innovation is the St Paul’s Way Transformation Project in London’s East End. A £36m regeneration scheme is turning St Paul’s Way secondary school into an integrated project including a health centre, an internet cafe and a careers service.
This needs to be the first of many such ambitious projects nationwide.
This article is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics