Russell Brand is wrong: young people should vote, and schools should do more to encourage them

By Germ Janmaat

Britain has the dubious reputation of topping the league table on the generation gap in voting. In no other western country is the difference between old and young people so large. While only44 per cent of people in their twenties turned out to vote in the 2010 elections, almost 80 per cent of pensioners did so. Obviously this is not good news for democracy. Politicians will not be inclined to pay much attention to the interests of young people as there are few votes to win among these groups. Consequently, government policy will become slanted in favour of older generations and other influential groups in society. This, in turn, might discourage the young from casting their vote still further.

Have young people’s low voting rates not alarmed politicians in Britain? Yes they have. In fact concern about declining political participation among youngsters prompted the previous Labour government to introduce citizenship education (CE) in schools and make it a statutory subject in key stages 3 and 4 (ages 11-16). This has been a step in the right direction as there is evidence that CE indeed helps in raising political engagement and in diminishing inequalities in engagement.

But the problem is that it ends at age 16. When the previous government decided to extend the period of compulsory education stepwise to age 18 it forgot to take CE along. This is quite deplorable. We know from previous research that young people start taking up an interest in political matters in their late teens. So that is the time they are most receptive to input on political issues and thus the phase when CE is likely to be most effective.

Are other subjects perhaps standing in for CE in upper secondary? No, not really, and certainly not if you compare English 16-19 education to that of other European countries. The vocational courses offered in further education colleges focus on job-specific skills and disregard wider civic dispositions. Due to the extreme specialisation in A-levels, with many students not taking more than three subjects, the situation is little better in the academic track. If you do, let’s say, English, Maths and Chemistry as your A-levels, you won’t have much opportunity to learn about and discuss socio-political issues. Only if you take social studies, history or general studies will you be exposed to a curriculum that is relevant for fostering political participation.

The situation is quite different in other countries. Not only do students who take the academic track do exams in many more subjects, those who enter vocational tracks are usually exposed to a broad curriculum that includes CE or social studies. This, for instance, is the case in Germany. In addition to doing apprenticeships, which is quite institutionalised and receives a lot of praise outside Germany, students in the vocational track spend time in the Berufsschule where they take a range of general courses.

Critics might argue that we don’t need extra citizenship education as young people are not disengaged. They simply prefer other ways of participating in politics, such as partaking in demonstrations, petitions, or online campaigns, which they find more adventurous, more sociable and less formal than voting. Russell Brand even calls on young people to stop voting altogether, saying “We know it’s not going to make any difference.”

Yet it would be naïve to think that young people can influence politicians to the same degree in these alternative ways. The number of people engaging in these forms of participation is still very small by comparison to those voting in elections, and British governments tend not to be very responsive to demonstrations and the like (unlike the French government!). Moreover, there is the risk that young people become so detached from conventional parliamentary politics that they no longer care about democracy as such. We already see a steady decline among young people in the United States in their support for democracy as system of government, to the point where they express almost as much support for some authoritarian alternative.

This is a scenario we most definitely want to avoid. So let’s introduce citizenship education for the 16-19 year olds and make sure they see the value of casting their vote.

More LLAKES research on young people and political engagement will be revealed on Tuesday 17 March, when new findings from the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study are launched at the House of Commons in association with the Citizenship Foundation.