As the Welsh Assembly publish their major report on votes at 16 today, the young people of Wales have spoken. And it is a clear message – young people want a vote.
With 10,375 young people consulted, the results show 53% of young respondents in favour of votes at 16; 29% against; with 18% stating ‘don’t know’.
These are the findings of a six month consultation on votes for 16 and 17 year olds with young people in Wales under the auspices of the Presiding Officer (Wales’ equivalent of the House of Commons’ Speaker) of the Welsh Assembly, Dame Rosemary Butler AM.
This is the most comprehensive survey of young people we have had in Wales, so it’s heartening that there is such a clear majority in favour of votes for 16 and 17 year olds. All parties now need to listen to our young people and commit to moving to votes at 16 for Welsh elections – both at local and national level. After all, the National Assembly for Wales is set to gain new powers over elections in Wales in the forthcoming Wales Bill (going through towards the end of the year), including over the franchise, the electoral system and the voting age.
Nevertheless, some of those surveyed expressed concerns about levels of knowledge about politics. Of those young people who voted against votes at 16 in the survey, many are likely to be concerned that young people do not know enough about politics and to make an informed choice as citizens. So it’s vital that 16 and 17 year olds have the chance to learn about politics in an impartial way and to discuss the issues which affect them in schools.
However, the flipside to that note of caution is that young people want to learn more about politics, with 79% thinking it important that young people learn more about politics and the voting system, and 77% thinking schools and colleges are the best place to do so. There is a very real untapped potential among our young people here – so Welsh Government needs to look at political education alongside votes at 16.
The link between democratic participation and learning is a long and honourable one, going back to Enlightenment thinkers, ‘learning by doing’, and our modern ideals of active citizenship. The involvement of active, informed citizens is vital to governance models of every political hue for solving problems we face in the future, be that stretched public services, or climate change.
The Welsh curriculum is set to change following the Professor Donaldson’s recent review, and so we should be looking at how Votes at 16 can be part of an overarching strategy in learning about politics and encouraging strong citizenship, as well as registering young voters in schools and colleges. Significantly, citizenship is at the centre of the new vision for Education in Wales in Donaldson Report. Donaldson states that one of the main purposes of the new curriculum should be to create ‘ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world’.
Votes at 16, rather than being seen in isolation as a simple ‘win’ for young people (though it certainly is that too), should be a means by which we drive making better informed young citizens, who feel able to take an active, informed and critical part in public life. The incredible youth engagement in Scotland during the referendum was linked to pupils’ learning in schools and ensuring young people were registered to vote. The Scottish success is also set to change the political awareness of young people in Scotland for a generation. We should aspire to nothing less in Wales.
Such an approach can bring together the different strands of giving our young people an opportunity to vote, and providing the knowledge and confidence for young people to take an active part in Welsh politics and decision-making. Done correctly, Votes at 16 could transform politics for a generation of young people in Wales.