Votes at 16? What good is that?

The chance to vote signals the beginning of your full democratic rights. But you currently have to pay taxes if you work at 16. So you’re expected to contribute without a say in where your contribution goes? Doesn’t figure…

Soon everyone will have to be in education or training up to the age of 18. This change cuts both ways. Maybe everyone will now be less responsible until they’re 18, seeing themselves as not yet ready for democratic participation? (In fact, when polled for the Youth Citizenship Commission in 2009, 66 per cent said they weren’t.)

But being in education the first time you vote could be a game-changer. Students will have had citizenship education to prime them for it: something previous generations never had.

To get real value this milestone needs a school-wide emphasis come the elections…

In the school setting, for instance, hundreds of pupils will be voting for the first time at every local or national election.

The school can ‘ignore’ this – saying it’s a private matter, or it can create activity that elevates the status and duty of voting.

For instance, school hustings, mock elections, debates, speakers such as prospective candidates in assemblies. All this develops critical thinking in the wider school community: not just those about to vote.

Then on the day of the election those eligible to vote would be let out of school in the afternoon to go and vote. If that’s everyone over 16 it will be about a fifth of the school. Quite a memorable spectacle for everyone if they all leave at once.

Statistics show that if people vote for the first time at a young age they are more likely to keep voting throughout life.

So signal its importance: support and incentivise it as a rite of passage.

Of course, they’ll discover it’s not a thrilling personal experience. But they’ll also have gone across the threshold and recognised it only takes a moment and you’ve had your say.

Then after the election the 16+ members of the school can reflect back on it to the others. They might say it was frustrating that their candidate didn’t get in. But the under 16s will have heard what the big kids think.

Which is better than now: when, often, the big kids don’t think.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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