Politics in schools ‘best way’ to engage kids

Scotland's 16 and 17-years-olds got a taste for politics during the independence referendum. Picture: Getty
Scotland's 16 and 17-years-olds got a taste for politics during the independence referendum. Picture: Getty
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DISCUSSING political issues in the classroom plays a crucial role in getting young people to participate in the democratic process, a study reveals.

No other factor – such as discussing politics with parents or friends – has greater influence in determining the civic attitudes of 16- and 17-year-olds, according to University of Edinburgh research.

We need to ensure that all young people can discuss politics

Dr Jan Eichhorn

In the wake of the independence referendum in which 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote for the first time, academics surveyed 800 16- and 17-year-olds – half in Scotland and half in other parts of the UK – and found that students in Scotland were more politically engaged than those elsewhere.

Researchers also found that students who engaged in discussion about political issues in class were significantly more likely to vote and be engaged with politics in a variety of other ways. Two-thirds of 16- and 17-year-old Scots surveyed said they would have been “very likely” to vote had they been eligible to do so in the general election.

Meanwhile, only 39 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds elsewhere in the UK said the same. In Scotland, 16- and 17-year-olds were allowed to participate in the independence referendum but not in the general election.

The issue of allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the upcoming European Union referendum is a hot topic in Westminster. Speaking in the Commons during a debate on the European Union Referendum Bill yesterday, Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond said: “Some will argue that we should extend the franchise further to 16- and 17-year-olds perhaps or even to citizens of other EU countries resident here. We do not agree.”

Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn has confirmed that Labour would seek an amendment to the Bill to allow 16- and 17-year-old’s to vote.

He said: “It is the same old excuse of an argument against giving people a say and it’s completely at odds with the other rights we already give to 16- and 17-year-olds, which include the right to work, pay tax, join the armed forces.”

Legislation was published earlier this year by the Scottish Government to permanently lower the voting age to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in forthcoming Scottish Parliament and local elections.

Subject to agreement at Holyrood, the bill should be passed in time for the May 2016 Scottish election.

During the independence referendum 124,000 16- and 17-year-olds were given the vote for the first time.

Dr Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh’s school of social and political science, one of the authors of the study, said: “Through good political education in schools and early voter enfranchisement, we get the next generation of young people to understand the relevance of politics better and engage in it more extensively.

“But we need to ensure that all young people can discuss ­political issues in a qualified way in classroom settings. It can’t be left to chance, because of where they live, whether they are supported in their first engagement with politics.”

The University of Edinburgh research reveals that Scottish 16- and 17-year-olds are more likely to have taken part in other forms of non-electoral political engagement, such as petitioning and writing to an MP. A total of 57 per cent reported that they had done so, compared with 40 per cent in the rest of the UK.

Young people in Scotland were better informed about politics than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.

Sixty per cent of Scottish pupils used three or more different types of information sources to learn about the general election in the three months preceding the survey, which was carried out in February 2015. This compared with 43 per cent of 16- and 17-year-olds elsewhere in the UK.

In Scotland, 63 per cent of those surveyed said they had discussed how the UK is governed in the three months preceding the survey with members of their family. This compared with only 39 per cent in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Amongst adults, giving 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote was also substantially more popular in Scotland. Fifty per cent of those expressing a view felt that young people should be allowed to vote in all elections, compared with 30 per cent in England, 33 per cent in Wales and 34 per cent in Northern Ireland.