Yesterday afternoon I attended a debate held by Oxfordshire’s youth parliament. This body is the local arm of a national organisation and eventually elects representative to the national youth parliament that is provided with an opportunity to debate in the House of Commons chamber. The youth parliament creates an opportunity for young people to receive their first taste of that part of the democratic process in action. During the day they discuss topics in groups, creating arguments for and against policies that allow them to see and understand how the debating process operates.
The topic for debate yesterday was around the issue of young carers and the responsibilities schools have to this group of young people.
The debate was surprisingly balanced between those that felt schools had a key role to play in helping young carers and others that felt school was a place to escape the burden of care and be yourself. This group was afraid of the stigma other pupils might attach to young carers if their role was too clearly known at school. Most contributors on both sides of the debate made single points that were rather more in the form of interventions than speeches although the opposition closing argument was an impassioned speech that may have swayed a few votes in his direction.
Four county councillors, including the Council Leader, along with a group of senior officers, turned up to listen to the debate and support the young people. Each councillor was able to express their support for the scheme and encourage the young people in their actions. After all, the teenagers had taken a day out of their half-term holiday to be at the youth parliament.
It was good to see the level of support and it is important that young people don’t take democracy too lightly, especially if England were to follow Scotland’s actions in the referendum and reduce the voting age for some if not all elections from eighteen to sixteen.
As we approach the 150th anniversary of the introduction of state education in England, in 2020, it is important to remember the part education has played in helping shape our democracy. One important change I have mentioned before is that the emphasis is now on educating children as individuals and not as classes. This makes more work for teachers, but creates more opportunities for children. How the rest of society handles that in terms of its effects on social mobility is another matter. But, we still struggle as a service to help those, whether young carers, pupils suffering from childhood illnesses and diseases, or children with parents that don’t appreciate the importance of school attendance. Unlocking the potential in all is a good phrase for an election slogan on education as it shows what we have still to do, but in a positive manner.
There is far more to a democratic state than the skill of debating, but to make at least that aspect of parliament real to young people might be to awaken the interest of the next generation of politicians.