Teaching Democracy

The Central Lobby, Palace of Westminster
The Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster; the place where Parliament and Public meet. Image © Jorge Royan, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Young people’s faith in democracy is at a crisis point. A recent poll discussed in the Guardian shows that young adults are the least likely group to have a favourable view of how well it serves them. People aged 18-24 are the least likely to vote, and demographics of those engaged in local politics and activism show us that young people just aren’t showing up.

Helping the young find their political voice

For those of us in the Remain movement, the struggle is real. Andrew Adonis highlighted the lack of young activism in a speech to the Hythe branch of the European Movement last year, pointing out that the organisation has more members over 80 than under 30. We know many young people care passionately about issues such as Brexit, climate change and social justice; we need to show them that democracy cares about those things, and help them find their political voices.

One key solution to explore is through education. Teaching about democracy as a core British Value is explicit across the national curriculum but all too often it is shoved into the background, crowded out by other issues and inexpert teaching. The Education team at UK Parliament is chipping away to change that (in a strictly non-partisan way, of course!). 

Teachers learn how to bring democracy to life

Last week I (a Kent teacher) spent three days immersed in all things Parliament. Through the UK Parliament Teacher Ambassador programme, I and 29 other teachers from secondary and primary schools, state and private schools, from all corners of the UK were there to learn how we can bring politics, Parliament and democracy to life for all young people (not just those who pick Politics or Law A-levels).

To enthuse us, we were treated to an ‘access all areas’ tour of the Palace of Westminster, including the opportunity to meet Speaker Hoyle. He was warmly welcoming of a gaggle of teachers in his state ‘apartments’ and shared our concerns about the risks to democratic engagement wrought by current Parliamentary discourse and behaviour. We saw the state-of-the-art education centre and were introduced to the range of free resources available to all schools.

Key networking

We went on to meet Conservative Nusrat Ghani, who outlined ‘a day in the life’ of a busy MP. We were taken aback by two key things she told us: first, the inhospitable hours which are required by our archaic parliamentary systems (which she was depressingly accepting of) and, second, the level of abuse she receives on a daily basis. Whilst politically I disagree with Ghani on many core issues, I could not help but find her tenacity and strength of character impressive. Her activism from the back-benches on the issue of China’s human rights abuses is extraordinary.

During the programme, I also had the chance to meet with (Lib Dem) Baroness Garden, who talked of her experiences with the ‘Learning with the Lords’ programme, which enables peers to work with schools to discuss their work. Another fantastic opportunity for early political engagement was put to us by Tonia Antoniazzi of the Petitions committee, who was keen to demonstrate how young people can engage with petitions and e-democracy, long before they are old enough to vote. 

Poor support from MPs

Disappointingly, although the MP for each of the 30 schools represented had been invited to meet trainees, only three arrived. I’m therefore especially grateful to Rosie Duffield of Canterbury for giving her time and sharing her enthusiasm for working with schools and young people. We had a positive and productive meeting.

I came away from the three days fizzing with excitement, possibility and positively evangelical about getting young people involved. With a file of resources to help me relaunch the teaching of democracy in my school, and beyond… I just need to find the time to make it happen.

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