Matt Mathias shares the work ERS Cymru (the Electoral Reform Society in Wales) has been doing to improve political education, on the Institute of Welsh Affairs website Click on Wales.
The saying “children should be seen and not heard” is something that comes straight out of the Victorian age and – quite frankly – should have stayed there. We certainly ignored it for our latest project ‘Our Voices Heard’, which saw us work with nearly 200 young people across Wales to get their ideas on how to improve political education.
This time last year we spoke to 850 people across the country and asked them how they felt about politics in a project called ‘Missing Voices’. One of the key findings was the huge amount of confusion around politics, across all ages.
So, where do you start to improve that level of confusion but at a very fundamental level? With political education in our schools.
To do this we approached 11 schools across Wales that represented a broad spectrum, taking into account national geography, urban and rural environments, academic performance, language and the economics of the area each school was in.
In each of these schools we ran workshops with around 20 young people, largely in year 9 (who will be the first full school group to vote at 16). The workshops were as gender balanced as possible and involved youngsters of mixed abilities.
We needed to listen to a range of voices, not just the usual suspects. We were there to facilitate and they were there to lead. At the end of the sessions, all their recommendations were voted on by the group with the top 3-5 from each school going through.
We started on 11th October in my old school, Ysgol Bro Gwaun in Fishguard, and finished four weeks later working with pupils from Bryngwyn school in Llanelli and Glan y Mor school in Burry Port.
Overall we travelled over a thousand miles for this project, speaking to nearly 200 young people in 11 schools ending up with 41 original recommendations. If there is a post-it note shortage in the next few months, blame us.
Experts are considered a bit passé nowadays but we still rate them. We pulled together an expert panel to go through and refine the recommendations, made up of people working in education and politics, teachers and students.
Any worries we had of these pupils being able to get their opinions out there in such esteemed company soon disappeared. They were not backward in coming forward. By the end of the session, the 41 recommendations had been reduced to 7:
- Statutory political education lessons with a minimum expectation of one hour each fortnight with learning focused on: Parties; Democracy; Institutions; Campaigning (to include practical sessions where young people can run a campaign from beginning to end on an issue they care about)
- An independent toolbox for teachers to adapt and apply for political lessons to ensure they are comprehensive and engaging and to ensure they are delivered in a nonpartisan way.
- Space for discussing and debating current events to be inbuilt in form time, political education classes and Personal and Social Education (PSE) lessons.
- A national mock election for young people which should be held at the same time as Assembly elections.
- An online resource at election time for people to find out about candidates standing in their area and to be able to submit questions to them. This should be in plain English/Welsh integrating with social media.
- ‘Life lessons’ to feature as part of PSE lessons, including stronger financial education around things like taxes, registering to vote and paying bills.
- Better support for schools to be able to host a range of politicians, including a resource to be developed for schools to facilitate a ‘question time’ style event with politicians and an adaptation of Parliament’s ‘Skype the Speaker’ programme, where schools can call their local politicians. Schools should ensure that students are exposed to a range of views.
Not bad eh?
In the end, the starting point needs to be that first recommendation. That’s it really. Political education needs to happen, our society wants it nearly as much as it needs it, young people want it, every school that took part wants it.
It has to be backed up though – we didn’t want to call for yet another subject to be added on to a teacher’s crammed teaching list without support. As the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, told us when these recommendations were handed over to her at a recent event in Cardiff, she is constantly asked by interested parties to add subjects to the curriculum. This covers increased PE, to understanding taxes to falconry. Yes, falconry. Her words not mine.
These recommendations represent a start. The start of ensuring that political education is highlighted as a fundamental part of our democracy.
This is important. We cannot allow yet another generation of young people in Wales to go out into the world not understanding how important their vote is, how decisions that directly impact their lives are shaped and not knowing how important they can be in making those decisions themselves. Their voices can, and must, be heard.