Increasingly, children and young people are stepping into political arenas that have been considered the realm of adults. In an insecure world, they are campaigning for their own lives and futures.
In the UK this year, students joined school ‘strikes’, taking to the streets to demand that more be done to tackle climate change. In the USA children and young people took a lead in the March For Our Lives protests in response to gun violence and school shootings.
More children are being invited to contribute their opinions on television and radio programmes. Greta Thunberg’s addresses to Westminster and the UN are a case in point. And, of course, social media has made it easier for young people to join in debate and to organise.
At the same time, young people are often over-protected by schools and other institutions, wary of exposing them to ideas that might cause offense.
Given this heightened political engagement, is it time to extend voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds across Britain? Or would it be an infringement of their childhoods? What should we make of calls to give children more of a voice in politics?
These questions were aired by a panel at the Battle of Ideas festival in London earlier this month, which included an activist A-level student, to which I was a contributor.
Some felt that young people of this age were sufficiently mature and knowledgeable to have an equal say, especially since their future will be heavily influenced by the outcomes of elections and referenda. This included school students in the audience, who had little difficulty articulating their viewpoint!
Others argued that while it was important to engage school students in political debate, the line between childhood and adulthood matters because it gives young teenagers the opportunity to work through their own ideas, and sometimes get them wrong, without responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. In other words, the long period of childhood we have in the UK is a positive thing because it gives children the space to experiment, reflect and develop their worldview.
A couple of young audience members suggested that voting at 18 was an arbitrary line to draw. This is a fair point, but of course the line has to be drawn somewhere. There is an important societal difference between students in school and those in university or at work – and that is their level of independence. Young people who live at home and go to school are still dependent on adults for their well-being (in school, teachers are in loco parentis) and they don’t have the independent right to get married, to buy alcohol and cigarettes or to own property.
In terms of their ideas about the world, they are likely to be heavily influenced by the adults around them, making it harder for the young person to distinguish between ideas and the adult in authority who is articulating the viewpoint – at least this is my view. The young people in the room felt that they were more independent minded than I gave them credit for.
So what is the role of schools? Some positives noted were Schools’ Councils and debating forums. On the other hand, schools today often lean towards protecting children from challenging ideas and experiences, reflecting a wider culture in which people are reprehended for causing minor offense. The panel felt that the exposure to robust debate and conflicting ideas needed in preparation for politics was often absent in classrooms.
This raises a question that needs more thought: what experiences and knowledge do school students need in order to help them mature and prepare them for participating in a democracy?
While we have had nearly two decades of citizenship education in the national curriculum, this does not seem to be sufficient in a culture which elevates protection over challenge and independence. In their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt report how some students on American campuses are demanding safe spaces because they find some ideas harmful – a trend also found on UK campuses.
They suggest that the school experience has contributed to a mind-set that has been sheltered from robust debate, exposure to challenging ideas and knowing what it is to fail. Drawing on Nick Haslam’s work, Concept creep: Psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology, Lukianoff and Haidt detail a culture of overprotection of children at school and at home.
Their advice for young people encourages: seeking out challenges (rather than avoiding or eliminating everything that feels unsafe), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than trusting your initial feelings) and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).
These are important first steps towards participation in a democracy that welcomes and tolerates conflicting perspectives and suggests any plan for student voice must treat young people as capable of receiving feedback on their ideas and actions rather than as vulnerable individuals.
Alex Standish is Senior Lecturer in Geography Education, UCL Institute of Education. Other members of the panel were Ralph Leighton, former leader of PGCE Citizenship Education at Canterbury Christ Church University College, Shelagh McNearney, a built-environment consultant and Ishani Milward-Bose, an A Level student from Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Faversham, and climate protestor. It was chaired by primary school teacher Josephine Hussey.
Photo: Greta Thunberg at European Parliament via Creative Commons