Citizenship education paves the way for votes at 16

Electoral Reform Society,

Posted on the 19th July 2017

With Wales looking to equalise their voting age with Scotland for local elections at 16, we asked our work experience student Carla to explain what impact the citizenship education classes she’d recent completed would have on extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds.

Young people have never been more able to develop their own political views. For the 1.5m 16 and 17 year olds in the UK, the natural next step is to express them at the ballot box.

Why? Since 2000, Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education (PSHCE) has been part of the National Curriculum. PSHCE established three overarching topics to teach students about life outside education: health and well-being, relationships, and living in the wider world. These core themes equip young citizens with knowledge that is found nowhere else in the curriculum. Together they provide young people with the first steps of a political education.

The myth that young people in our society are simply apathetic and unable to formulate an educated political opinion is commonly rolled out as an argument for why they should not be able to vote at 16.

Yet today’s pupils are the first cohort to have received a high level of citizenship education. Now it is often the case that young ‘voters-in-waiting’ have spent more time considering the issues than their adult counterparts – precisely because they have to do it, whilst for many older voters first thought of the election is on election day. Why is it that some of the most informed are deprived regarding the right to vote?

Here are three more reasons why citizenship education means our school leavers should have the vote:

Citizenship education explores the importance of a balanced argument

A merit of citizenship education is that pupils receive balanced arguments, upon which they can develop their own political standpoint. Unlike many sources of information, the content of citizenship classes can be assessed by different sides of the debate. Being able to formulate opinions based on this impartial information establishes an increased level of political literacy across the year groups.

The ability to process information and come to a final opinion is a vital part of education itself. PSHCE improves the future of our democracy for years to come.

Citizenship education engages students regardless of background

When a PSHCE curriculum was rolled out across the country from 2000, it was made compulsory for all schools to teach. This means that all students, irrespective of their school, will receive a like-for-like education on core political issues. Children who come from fragmented home lives, and children who have more engaged parents, are not discriminated against: all students have access to the same level of PSHCE.

It is vital for an active democratic citizenry that we have equality of knowledge regarding our institutions. Each child is educated and so each child will have the ability to partake in democracy, regardless of where they come from.

Citizenship education covers all the bases

Citizenship education is both academic (PSHCE) and vocational (school councils and mock elections). This provides pupils with a clear understanding of both how to form and understand an argument and how to then help put it into practice. Without this vocational education, acting out the old ritual of voting can seem alien as young people enter our democracy. Likewise, potential candidates will get a taste of what to expect in the future.

Citizenship education paves the way for votes at 16 by engaging with pupils early, and guiding them straight from academic and vocational education into our democracy. Without extending the franchise we are training up the next generation, then letting their skills and opportunity to use their knowledge go to waste.

We know from Scotland that 16 and 17 year olds are more likely to vote than 18 year olds, precisely because they are coming straight out of education. We also know that citizens are more likely to vote again if they have voted before.

Taken together, further improving and extending citizenship education and introducing votes at 16 are the next step in revitalising our democracy.

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