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Politics: the next generation

Next generation, next steps

Kate Fearon

Two things are clear from our research. There was a great (unmet) desire among the young people surveyed to talk about politics, and a great (also unmet) desire to learn more about politics in school. The opportunity to talk about politics in their own environment was viewed as desirable - many said they didn't get the opportunity to do it enough. Eighty per cent of the survey respondents and a similar proportion of the focus-group participants said they would like to learn more about politics in school. There was an understanding that information and education should precede discussion, and a sense that the more informed one was, the more confident one would be about offering opinions.

But, as Paul Donnelly comments, young people currently lack the intellectual tools to anticipate and develop their own agenda. What is needed is a curriculum where children are provided with the capacity to think; there is a need to equip pupils with critical faculties.[1] How, then, might these identified needs be provided for? How might any provision be managed? And what are the risks?[2] In this, concluding, chapter we look at opportunities in formal and informal education, before fleshing out some of the ideas suggested by young people for their own representation.

The Northern Ireland education minister, Michael Ancram, has emphasised that education should contribute to management or even resolution of the conflict: "We see our education strategy as central to the long term stability and coherence of Northern Ireland society. [E]ducation can nurture the attitudes which can break down social barriers and promote the inclusion of all individuals and groups in the life and growth of a strong society."[3]

Yet how have EMU and history textbooks conveyed peace messages? How have they contributed to stability? If they have not, then why not, and what should be done?[4] Education for citizenship is important in a democratic society and cannot he left to chance.[5]

The practice of citizenship education is advancing, and Barbara Lomas has highlighted exemplars from around the globe.[6] Below, some of the models[7] which inform this practice are outlined.

Sometimes referred to as quietism, the patriotic model encourages a positive concern for one's society and loyalty to it. Saluting the flag and other patriotic devices are frequently used. The consensus model acknowledges the importance of citizenship education but tries to avoid contention by concentrating on safe, non-controversial topics. Political education is more ahstract - usually a descriptive account of the processes of government as it goes on in the world of the adult; students may only see themselves as distant spectators of such political activity.

Emphasising the role of school organisation and ethos as reflecting a good or just society, the school ethos model is experiential. Some structures for consultation may be available, like a school council, but the question of how far a school can or will duplicate democratic practice is very real. Practitioners of this model readily acknowledge its limits, and its risks: "The school is certainly not a true democracy at present and is unlikely ever to be so."[8] But adherence to a form of democracy means that "everyone in a school will expect a considerable degree of consultation, a right for individuals to speak their minds whether or not they agree with the official or majority line of the school, and there is also an implication that the rights of the individual will be enshrined while at the same time being balanced with the needs of the community as a whole."[9]

A value conflict model of citizenship education requires students to acknowledge the reality of problems faced by citizens in today's world. It acknowledges the citizen's fundamental right to freedom of belief and conscience and actively assists the resolution of conflict both between and within individuals. This represents a move away from more utopian models which present democratic systems that are idealistic and unrealistic - the possibility that democratic politics can be fraught with frustration and corruption should not be hidden from students.

The parental model holds that parents are solely responsible for citizenship education. They are thus free to promote their own values and beliefs. A religious model considers religious values to offer the best means of teaching the civic virtues of service to others and to the community, but teaching 'good citizenship' via religious education becomes increasingly problematic in multi-cultural or mainly secular societies. As Patricia White points out, the equation of moral with religious is dangerous, because citizens should understand that the religious may not always be good and the good may not always be religious.[10]

But in a democracy a descriptive civics programme is insufficient. Pupils need more than knowledge. They need to be able to question received knowledge; they need skills, they need values and they need the opportunity to participate in situations which will allow them to practise these.

The UK National Commission on Education, confirming the importance of citizenship, highlights two important developments in modern life:

  1. The ever-increasing weight of legislation, and use of the law to regulate many aspects of daily life, has not been matched by corresponding efforts to acquaint citizens with the information they need to exercise their rights and duties with understanding and confidence.

  2. Growing cynicism about politics, combined with a decline in voting amongst the youngest electors, suggests commitment to the democratic processes may be eroding. Accountability of government to the people requires an educated and informed citizenry capable of making reasoned moral judgments concerning issues in the public domain.'1

Should citizenship be part of the core curriculum? Barbara Lomas referred to the findings of the Speaker's commission, and in its education policy paper, Excellence for Everyone, Labour has called for citizenship lessons to be taught alongside the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools.[12] Northern Ireland, of course, presents the additional challenge of education for citizenship in a deeply divided society.

The Flemish framework,[13] which draws on several of the above mod-Eels, represents a useful foundation on which to base a four-stranded approach. The main pillars of this system are politico-legal, socio-economic and socio-cultural.

The politico-legal pillar deals, inter alia, with aspects of power, negotiation, lobbying, decision-making, institutions and procedures, and international cooperation. The socio-economic area pays attention to labour relations, trade, welfare and the roles of government and media. The socio-cultural deals with aspects of education, leisure, and family life.

To these three strands we would add a fourth: human rights education. This should incorporate an element of history, which would be distinct from history as a singular academic pursuit.

This history would serve two functions. First, it would be a tool with which to understand why human rights are being taught - the history of the last two or three centuries can be understood at least in part as the struggle to institute human rights.[14] Secondly, an introduction to the course of Northern Ireland's history would provide a standardising buffer to 'knowledge' picked up on the street or in the home. It would at least equip students with the ability critically to assess knowledge handed down from other sources.

Human rights education also implies that pupils should know about human rights and be motivated to act in accordance with them.[15] Protection of human rights, after all, depends on people knowing what their rights are: "Human rights and citizenship education can almost be viewed as education for self-interest; for if we protect and promote human rights, we may succeed in preventing the human rights abuses not just of others but of ourselves."[16]

While the nomenclature of such a new, age-appropriate, compulsory subject is important, it is also important to remember that the young people we surveyed were unafraid of naming it 'political education'. It may be that softer terminology is required to sell the concept to parents, politicians and educationalists, but the content of the subject needs to be robust. The Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment should seek funding to research the name, content, design and delivery of such a subject.

Virtually all these proposals have relevance to the training of teachers. It is clearly vital that we introduce these ideas to the next generation of teachers from the beginning of their careers. Ken Fogelman argues that changing traditional attitudes, and understanding the implications of new political and economic structures, implies a substantial programme of professional development - it's a major challenge for teachers to develop the confidence and ability to handle such issues in the classroom. But they must be dealt with there. And to do that, teachers must have the trust of parents and politicians.[17]

In sketching a backdrop to the review of the youth service, MrAncram asserted that "the present framework is not sufficiently flexible to acknowledge the differing needs of many young people. Youth groups also differ in format and operation and for many the implementation of all of the existing core requirements is an unrealistic and inappropriate goal. In addition, with the passage of time, new issues such as health and the environment have become important, but are not reflected sufficiently in the curriculum requirement."[18] Our survey suggests that political education is also important.

Thompson and Harvey have alluded to the controversy associated with some youth work and this is borne out by investigations into high stress among youth workers. One reported investigation found that "those employed in the city's youth clubs have been enduring intimidation and violence. Some youth workers fear their work - particularly in the areas of drugs and when dealing with the police - could place their lives at risk from paramilitaries."[19]

Due to lack of resources and training, most youth clubs are unable to provide opportunities for political discussion. Where the will is there, resources should, where possible, be found. Where that is not possible, clubs can adopt the 'school ethos' model of management. Youth clubs are more malleable than schools for experiments in democratic participation. They can provide de facto opportunities to practise democracy, even where they cannot offer formalised discussion.

While the school ethos model allows for limited participatory democracy (as via school councils), as many children as possible need to experience politics in other, more real, contexts for example through community debate, or in promoting their agenda to a district council. But how best to engender these opportunities? Experience from French and English towns may prove germane.

In 1979, International Year of the Child, Schiltigheim, in Alsace, created a structure for young people to express their views on town life and offer suggestions for change. This, first, structure was called the 'child town council'. There are now more than 700 youth town councils in France, with a national co-ordinating body - the Association National des Conseils d'Enfants et des Jeunes.[20]

The ANACEJ is the resource centre of the councils, "a crossroads of dialogue and experience", a place for information and research, a lobby in favour of young people in dialogue and in town life. Each council is autonomous, and towns are free to design and develop their own arrangements - though commonly councils are co-ordinated by civil servants, with regular meetings with the mayor and issue experts as required. But all hold as a key objective the creation of places of expression for the young.

Usually a certain number of young people - about 30 for a town of 25,000 - are elected for one to three years by their friends at schools, in clubs, associations and so on. The age of councillors varies from one town to another: from 10 to 13, or 10 to 15, in those towns which encourage early participation in municipal life, or from 15 to 18 in those which think that dialogue with an older age group can be more profitable.

After the elections (often held every two years), the young people meet the mayor in a public plenary session where they present all their criticisms and suggestions. They talk about town planning, road safety, everyday life, integration problems in different areas, schools, worries about future employment, culture. Young and old get to know each other better - adults bringing realism, knowledge and practice of town management; young councillors bringing enthusiasm, ideas and a fresh approach to both problems and solutions. During these discussions between mayor and young councillors, real training in democracy emerges.

Just as les counseils des jeunes in France have provided opportunities for young people to be inserted into the system, as opposed to being rejected by it, similar initiatives have developed in the UK. The Scarman inquiry after the 1981 Brixton riots in London led to the establishment of police and community groups. But the PCGs attracted mainly adults, and were not a welcoming place for younger people. Greater Manchester Police Authority thus initiated a project, in consultation with local schools, [21] which resulted in a term-time youth forum being held in several schools - aimed at improving liaison and consultation between police and young people, and also between young people and other sectors of their community. This structure has enabled young people to express their views to the police in a non-confrontational context, to give a voice to their concerns, through to the police authority, and to address any matters arising, where necessary in partnership with the police.

There are obvious problems with direct application of this initiative to Northern Ireland, but what is of interest is that these fora have developed into a Youth Advisory Board in Manchester, which brings together students, local authority representatives and the community education service, to deal with matters of concern to young people within the local authority's ambit. In turn, the latter has developed its own youth policy.

The key point from both these experiences is that elected local government has provided opportunities for young people to express their opinions in a localised environment where they are listened to - opportunities to practise democracy.

Among the many ideas young people in our research offered, as enhancing their representation and participation, was a political party for young people or a youth parliament. But the mechanics of these were unspecified. Yet if they were quick to replicate the language and format of existing structures, the issues they prioritised were different.

A mechanism which collects, distils and feeds the views of young people into the policy process is necessary. The successful mechanisms devised in France and England are thus instructive. While not directly applicable, it is possible to conceive of a hybrid arrangement, whereby youth platforms could cluster geographically around district councils, which would lend administrative support; and politically around the relevant agencies dealing with whatever issue was prioritised for the term of office - be it roads, health, education or whatever. District councils could initiate, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, discussions with local schools and clubs, to test the popularity of embarking on such schemes. They do not all have to look the same, or even link up; variable geometry can be the order of the day.

What is clear, however, is that we will not, unilaterally, coerce young people into structures that apparently offer little to them.[22] These Youth District Councils should be taken seriously, and the input from young people should be taken regularly - to help inform, or establish, council youth policy. The emergence of Community Youth Forums, such as in the Shankill or Poleglass, would not cut across such a proposal. They present valuable opportunities to voice concerns in the community, and could fit (if they so desired) with any youth district council without ceding any autonomy.

There are auxiliary benefits. Talent could be spotted early, and youth representatives steered to programmes run by a Northern Ireland training institute for young politicians. Such an institute could be housed in the political training programme already offered by the Ulster People's College. The syllabus here might include a more advanced level of what young people have been studying in their citizenship education courses at school. In this way, concerns about the conduct and competence of current politicians might be addressed.

Another instrument of government in Northern Ireland is, of course, the quango. Only one out of 1,343 appointees on a public body in the region is aged under 30.[23] Labour has indicated that it would be prepared to address this. Describing the absence of young members as "alarming", the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Mo Mowlam, has said Labour would encourage young people to promote themselves, and urged trade unions, businesses, councils and community groups to propose youth representatives themselves.[24] When 27 per cent of all unemployed people are under 25, for instance, it seems sensible to have someone at least close to that age sitting on the Training and Employment Agency.

In France, many consider the youth town councils a new form of civic education, complementing that given at school. Such a symbiotic relationship may not be instantly possible, but, if seeded at an early stage in a young person's development, civic education can bring a harvest of greater stability. After all, if young

people do not receive political education from schools or the youth sector, from whom and in what way do they?[25] And, in a deeply divided society, should the acquisition of such knowledge be left to chance?

Our survey pointed to a change in the attitudes of young people as they grew older and this is corroborated by findings in the UK: "Mercifully too, political knowledge increases as teenagers get closer to voting age, independently of education".[26] The question is: where does this information come from?[27] Sex education in school yards results in unplanned pregnancies; does political education on the streets maintain sectarianism?

The system we envisage thus looks like:

Stitched onto the patchwork of a segregated school system and a retarded local government formula, these measures are limited in scope. But they may contribute to a climate where the expressed wishes of parents for integration [28] will be lent weight and resources, and where the mystique of the chamber is cast down.

One other salient theme to flag up, in conclusion, was that compromise was not feared by the young people we surveyed. The sense of alienation may have been acute, but there was an ability to see that compromise was necessary if they were to have the things they dreamed of: peace, a fair justice system, a police service they could trust, representation and participation in a society they could call their own: "Children and young people are citizens in their own right. To suggest that they are citizens in waiting is to deny them their rights to participate and a denial of tbe value of their perspective and experience."[29]

But their perspectives and experience are all too often denied. As one participant in our study said, "They just don't care." Forty-one per cent of the population of Northern Ireland is under 25 years of age, well above the European Union average,[30] yet only 78 per cent of 17 year olds are in full-time education, compared with 90 per cent in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands; 60 per cent of pupils do not take 'A' levels.

There is no doubt that teenage life is tough: teenage pregnancy rates in Northern Ireland are 80 per cent higher than in the republic; incidences of drinking and smoking among teenagers in the region are some of the worst in the northern hemisphere.[31] Last year, 52,000 young people from Northern Ireland called Childline and one third of children live in poverty. Between 1973 and 1992, out of a total of 1,970 'punishment' attacks, over 80 per cent of victims were 16-25 year-olds.[32]

It's not just in Northern Ireland, of course, that the young are denied voice and vocation. 'Testament of Youth', a MORI poll carried out for the Trade Union Congress in the UK, found young workers "disenchanted with traditional politics". It called on politicians, employers and trade unions "to listen to their concerns and deliver a new package of rights against exploitation".[33] Commenting on the results, the TUC general secretary, John Monks, said: "Young workers are too often treated like school kids. Policy makers and employers who ignore young people's plea for fair treatment are storing up trouble for the future."[34]

Other recent studies have found themes similar to the ones we have uncovered: alienation and disenchantment from traditional politics, but not total disengagement from society.[35] It surely matters, in representative politics, if large interest groups are excluded (or exclude themselves) from policy discussion: policy thereby becomes the preserve of a class of policy-makers likely to be uninformed by direct experience. " Given the average age of a Northern Ireland MP is 61, it is unsurprising that they do not attract young people to their coterie, and this is reflected in their policies and work, as our respondents confirm.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child advocates that children should become actors in their own development. That development surely includes the right to contribute and be heard in the society of which one is part. This study shows that young people in Northern Ireland want representation and, moreover, they value it. They care; they want to connect. We must offer compelling channels for them to do so.

1Ian Davies, 'Citizenship: a review', Citizenship, vol 4, no 2, 1995, pp 33-6
2Ekatarina Rachmanova and Vladimir Severukhin, 'Teaching human rights as the main trend in educational reform in Russia', Citizenship, vol 4, no 2, 1995. Teaching human rights to pupils and students in Russia has brought conflicts with parents and teachers. Many pupils have come to the conclusion that human rights do not hold any relevance for them he-cause of where they live: Russia works according to its own laws and traditions and international law has little influence over its behavior
3Northern Ireland Information Service, press release, October 15th 1995
4See Ruth Firer's 'Shalom education in Israel during the peace process 1993-4)', Citizenship, vol 4. no 2, 1995, fur a fuller discussion of this point in relation to the Israeli system.
5Davies, op cit, p36
6See her chapter in this volume.
7Hugh Barr, Citizenship, vol 4, no 1, p3; H Entwistle, Political Education in a Democracy, Routledge, London, 1972; Don Rowe, Education for citizenship: a world concern', Citizenship, vol 3, no 2, 1994, pp 3-6
8Bernard Trafford, Sharing Power In Schools: Raising Standards, Ticknall, Education Now Books, 1993, p3
9ibid, p3
10Cited in Rowe, op cit. See also Patricia White, 'Citizenship and spiritual and moral development', Citizenship, vol 3, no 2, 1994, pp 7-8
11Citizenship, vol 3, no 2, 1994, p22
12'Parliament's new moral fire', Guardian (Education), October 29th 1996
13Bart Maes, 'Education for citizenship in the Flemish secondary education curriculum', Citizenship, vol 4, no 2, 1995, pl0
14Glyn Phillips, 'Human rights and education', Citizenship, vol 3, no 2,1994
16Cheryl Law, 'Teaching for freedom: Amnesty International's human rights education programme', Citizenship, vol 4, no 1, 1995, pp 13-15
17Ken Fogelman, 'Why is citizenship education important?', Citizenship, vol 4, no 2,1995
18Northern Ireland Information Service, press release, March 28th 1996
19Internal Belfast Education and Library Board report - see 'Terror stalks youth workers', Irish News, November 7th 1996
20The Children and Youth Town Councils: an experiment of involvement in the Town's Life, Association National des Conseils d'Enfants et de Jeunes briefing paper, Paris, 1994
21Rebecca Orford, 'Giving young people a voice', Citizenship, vol 4, no 2, 1995, pp 53-5
22 Howard Williamson, 'Polarising the young', New Times, November 9th 1996
23 This figure represents those positions filled and is exclusive of tribunal membership and those who are not government appointees (eg where elected councillors have de facto status) as of April 1st 1995; see Public Bodies 1995, HMSO London, 1995, pp 32-44
24'Mowlam hits out at age profile of north's quangos', Irish News, December 7th 1996
25 David Walker, 'Young people, politics and the media', in Helen Roberts and Darshan Sachdev eds, Young People's Social Attitudes, Barnardos, Essex, 1996, p126
26 Alison Park, 'Teenagers and their politics', in Roger Jowell, John Curtice, Alison Park, Lindsay Brook and Daphne Ahrendt with Katarina Thomson, British Social Attitudes: The 12th Report, Social and Community Planning Research, London, 1995, p47
27 Walker, op cit, p127
28 Polls consistently show that most young people (and their parents) are in favour of integration in primary schools, but only 2 per cent of children in Northern Ireland are in integrated schools. In 1995 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child told the government to make greater provision for integrated schools. The Department of Education's response was Framework for Transformation, which proposed that schools would be able to acquire integrated status even if only 5 per cent of their students came from a minority community. The Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education recently forced the department to raise the threshold to 10 per cent.
29 Owen Keenan (European Child Welfare Forum), speech to 'Can young people break the glass ceiling?' conference, as reported by Northern Ireland Youth Forum, Belfast, December 1996
30In 1993 this was 32 per cent - Eurostat Yearbook '95: A Statistical Eye on Europe 1983-1993, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 1995 p80
31'Trauma of teenage lifestyle revealed', Irish News, September 5th 1996
32 'Can young people ...?' conference report
33 'Testament of Youth', MORI poll for the TUC, cited in 'Politicians "lack awareness" of young workers' problems', Guardian, August 22nd 1996
34 ibid
35Research on the future of the voluntary sector shows young people are more open than other age groups to a political role for the voluntary sector and are happy to give their money to organisatinos involved in politics. They also show more support than any other age cohort for campaign groups working for human rights, single parents and the unemployed. Natalie Fenton, Katherine Gasking and Meriel Vlaeminke, Young People,s Attitudes to the Voluntary Sector, NCVO, London 1996, cited in the Guardian (Society). September 4th 19961. The British Youth Council found that a fifth of 16-25 year-olds were not registered to vote, four times as many as in any other age group. I Young People: Changing the face of British Politics, briefing paper, nyc, London, 1993.] And, in another study, only one respondent out of 385 said that politics was important to them. Second Front, Brighton District Council sample survey of 16-19 year olds, Guardian, June 19th 1995.1
36Walker, op cit, p126

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