Votes at 16?

Clare Coatman
21 October 2008

Clare Coatman (London, oD): In an attempt to engage young people with the formal political process, the Youth Citizenship Commission (YCC) - a body set up this summer as part of the Governance of Britain agenda to "examine ways of developing young people's understanding of citizenship and increase their participation in politics" - is beginning a three month consultation on lowering the voting age to sixteen - the first of a range of proposals. The consultation paper (pdf) includes information on where we fit in internationally, the current legal picture (what rights and responsibilities come into effect at what ages) and the implications of both leaving the law untouched and reforming it. 

Sixteen-year-olds can get married, have children and join the army. They are among those who will feel the long term impact of global warming, our foreign policy and the recent financial crisis. They will face major challenges from rising unemployment and will feel the full effects of our education policy.

On the face of it, then, it seems logical that the voting age should be lowered. However, if young people are disillusioned by and uninterested in parliamentary politics, giving them the option of voting as a lone measure can't possibly solve the deeper problem. The right eighteen-year-olds have to vote does not ensure a reasonable turn-out amongst that age group and, once the novelty has worn off, what would ensure reasoned and regular voting from the under eighteens?

At sixteen a small proportion of people are highly politically aware and active, but equally there are those who can't even name a single party or minister.

I sat through four years of compulsory Citizenship education, and my political interest and activism exists very much despite it. Like many other schools, mine rolled the lesson in with PSHCE lessons (ed - that's Personal Social Health and Community Education for those unfamiliar with the latest pre-16 curriculum!) leaving a vast range of content to be covered in just an hour a week. The teacher was not a specialist and was ill-prepared both for the content and for the appalling behaviour of some of the class. Many teachers do not take the subject seriously, and few students see it as anything other than an extra hour a week to chat with mates. To be at all effective more resources and creative thinking is needed. Don't just talk about community participation - get the students involved, have field trips, invite guest speakers in, have debates. Do anything other than sit in a room and plough through worksheets.

A single measure like votes at 16 won't get the job done. Citizenship education must be drastically re-designed and embedded into the wider syllabus before we have any hope of producing sixteen-year-olds, and adults, who are willing to engage in the political process.

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