Socrates argued that democracy is an active process and not an institution. Jacques Derrida, building on his thinking, argued that democracy isn’t; rather, it can only become. Democracy, like any skill, needs to be taught systematically to people. Letting the citizenry vote without an education, Socrates would think, is as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.
Young people love to vote and participate. Whenever there are ‘elections’ at school, they get involved in huge numbers. When it comes to voting for favourite performances on TV shows, they also vote in mass.
As Professor Peter Mortimore (former Director of the Institute of Education) wrote in 2011, in a pamphlet I co-authored,
In 1950, 84% of the electorate turned out to vote but only 65% did so in 2010. A survey of first-time voters carried out for Radio 1, just before the last election, reported that 30% did not believe their vote would count and 20% felt they did not know enough about politics to make a decision. Despite these comments, however, more than half claimed they would vote if they could do so online or using text messaging. And, from the 15.5 million votes cast during the last series of the X Factor, we know young people like voting.
As people grow up, and building on Socrates’s point, very often, they don’t know how to vote.
When it comes to real democracy (affecting decisions which have an impact on how we live) and because we don’t know what participating actually means, we get confused – at best – or switch off. Participation rates at local and general elections – albeit on the increase, in some cases – is poor (2015 general election: 66.1%, 2016 London mayoral election: 45.3%)
People care about what directly affects them, on their doorstep. Sadly, and because of the way people have forgotten about civic participation, politics, in many ways, has become something remote from our everyday lives. Brexit is something most of us feel powerless about – however angry it certainly makes us. Poverty is something we’re all angry about but feel unable to really challenge. Most of what is discussed on the news concerns us, but seems increasingly out of our reach, when it comes to influencing debates.
As I’ve argued before, it has become a moral imperative to revive civic participation in local communities, particularly in schools. Learning to work through a collective (your class, your year group, your school as a whole) and agree what needs to be changed (learning to use your voice, learning to compromise, etc.) and, collaboratively, devise tactics which will see you develop your leadership, take action, and bring about change, is something schools can easily facilitate. Every child, by the time they leave school, should have worked with others to craft, and win, a campaign that has made their life, and that of their community, better.
Education is about preparing children to be active participants in society. It is about enabling them to be successful and in charge of their destinies. There is no better to do that get them to connect their hopes, through their learning, to the world they live in. This is what I’ve described through Peter Hyman and Liz Robinson’s Head, Heart, and Hand model here.
A big part of what a successful education should be about, if we believe in enabling children to be in charge of their futures, is about giving them the tools which will enable them not to only participate, but also shape, the world they live in. This means preparing children politically. It means preparing them to fulfil their birth right: we cannot be true actors who can shape society for what it ought to be it we don’t truly understand the world as it is. And not being taught about our sense of power and agency (in the same way as Voice 21 does when supporting school leaders to enable students to find their voice), where to start when we want to affect change in our lives, is why we leave this to those who are already in power. We end up leaving decisions which affect all of us to those who are in (already) power because of their inherited backgrounds, status, and connections.
As Professor Mortimore continued,
So can politics be revitalised simply by installing better voting technology? My answer is ‘yes’ if politics is defined as – and limited to – voting for a government every five or so years but ‘no’ if it lives up to its true mission. Politics is about ‘people power’ and must surely encompass groups of citizens taking collective decisions on behalf of their society based on justice, equality, fairness, safety, sustainability and the need for cohesion.
Lots is going on in an increasing number of schools which can give us hope. From students taking action on issues of street safety, to classes organising campaigns to hold local councillors to account on issues of recycling, to schools negotiating with large institutions like Transport for London on the regularity of buses on certain routes, at certain times, lots of neighbourhood-level work is shaping up. And students/schools, by being focused on winnable issues, are bringing about real change.
Our challenge is to make this the norm and ensure that, as part of their learning – and, therefore, as part of our teachers’ training – students learn more about how power is organised in society, how to manipulate it and, eventually, how to claim it back. This can only start on our doorstep; we should stop focusing on Westminster or other nebulous institutions.
I was reminded, recently, that politics should be about making a mountain out of a molehill. The only way to give rise to truly participative communities of active citizens is to focus on molehills and make them mountains.
See more examples of what this can look like here.
Want to share some of your successes, get in touch @sebchapleau.