Why Democracy Should Start in the Classroom

01 May 2012
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Annie QuickAnnie Quick

Annie Quick is a Trustee of the Phoenix Education Trust. This is the charity which initiated Student Voice, the student-run organisation which supports young people's voices on issues which affect their lives at school or college. She also works for Involve, a charity promoting research and practice in citizenship and public participation.

Could giving students more of a say in the way that schools are run lay the groundwork for more engaged and thoughtful citizenship later in life?

The Department for Education is currently running a review of the curriculum (soon to be open to public consultation). One of the subjects that may be cut is citizenship education. Many pro-democracy organisations who feel passionately about political education and the need for an active citizenship have been campaigning to have it kept. Their general argument is that in an age when the government is relying more and more on an active citizenry, not only to engage in formal politics but also to co-produce public services, it is madness to cut out the teaching which provides young people with the skills and knowledge to carry out these functions effectively.

And quite right too.

And yet I’m sure I’m not the only person whose memories of citizenship classes are less than inspiring. Apart from anything else, it always seemed to me that there was something slightly strange about being made to sit in lines and listen to our superiors lecturing us about the importance of our rights, our responsibilities and the glorious equality of democracy.

To be fair the subject area has developed considerably since I was at school and there are some fantastic examples of citizenship education which use class time to develop debating skills and critical thinking, but the general point remains: how effective is it to teach students about democracy in such an undemocratic setting?

While there are some genuinely democratic education models at work in the UK private sector (eg Sands or Summerhill), in the state system participation usually takes the form of Student Voice. When it is done properly, the students are involved as legitimate stakeholders in decision-making about issues affecting them, including timetabling, curriculum, uniform and behaviour. It seems to me that a school can provide the perfect context to build citizenship on this learning-by-doing basis.

Practice makes perfect

If the government hopes that participation is going to become a way of life, it’s unrealistic for it to only kick in at 18. The idea behind Cameron’s National Citizen Service is, in his own words, to ‘inspire a generation of young people to appreciate what they can achieve and how they can be part of the Big Society,’ but the focus on compulsory ‘volunteering’ and giving to your communities is only one side of the coin – young people also need to get engaged in having their say, making sure that they’re getting what they need from society as well as giving what they can.

We know that attitudes set in early. Participation needs to start early too. And where better than in schools, the institutions set up wholly to serve the need of the students who attend them?

Having a stake

While I don’t want to jump on the riots band-wagon and argue that a lack of student democracy was somehow responsible, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that student democracy could be part of the answer. The LSE and Guardian’s recent research on ‘reading the riots’ found that half of rioters did not see themselves as part of British society. They also spoke about the need to be heard, how they felt marginalised, and explained the disturbance as one way of getting people to listen to them – or at least notice them. The picture painted is one of people, many of them young, who feel they have no stake in society. Why, then, should they engage constructively in it? A more democratic school system could give young people a real stake in their own lives, at the crucial point when many of them are making their first major contact with society’s public institutions.

Size matters

One of the real challenges in participation on a national scale is that it’s very hard for anyone to see the long-term impact of their own actions. One of the most consistent findings about participation is that people are more likely to continue participating if they can see the difference they have made, or at the very least feel that their views have been considered. (For example, see http://pathwaysthroughparticipation.org.uk.)

And yet on a national level it is very hard for anyone to really see the effects of their own participation. The number of people involved is too large and there are too many cogs of the machine, and in addition the actual effect on peoples’ lives can be years down the line. It can be difficult to relate outcomes back to participation.

However, in an educational context, students given the authority to make decisions to improve their schools can have made a real and visible impact by the time they leave. This kind of experience gives young people an insight into how much difference they can make, as well as a self-confidence which will stay with them later in life when they participate in larger decisions where the reward is not immediately visible.

Just as importantly they also have the opportunity to see the adverse effects of some of their suggestions, and learn from their mistakes. Because the feedback loop is shorter they can gain insight into the impact of their actions and develop a more responsive form of citizenship.

In conclusion . . .

During the last ten years there has been a general acknowledgement of the importance of young people having a say in their schools, but not nearly enough focus has been put on its massive potential to feed into the Big Society agenda.

The research on student voice is very positive, but there is not nearly enough of it, perhaps because it is a relatively new item on the national agenda. My views are based partly on my personal experience working directly with young people within (and excluded from) education. Although there are many challenges, I remain optimistic about the impact student participation can have not just on the education system but also on the lives of young people and society as a whole.

However, I have also seen that student voice, done badly, is worse than nothing at all. While school councils can sometimes be valuable tools, it is unfortunately still true that many school councils consist of students chosen directly or indirectly by staff, so breeding cynicism in the rest of the student population.

There are, however, a host of other more inclusive methods. To revert to the government’s curriculum consultation, citizenship classes are often used to spend time developing genuine student voice programmes. The protection of citizenship classes is key to student democracy as well as political education.

Everyone agrees that we need to have more active and engaged citizens, but there’s much less agreement about how to make this happen. Schools, seen as contained mini-societies set up precisely to prepare young people for the adult world, seems to me to be an obvious place to start.

A version of this article was first published on the Involve blog.

 

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