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GEOFF BARTON: Why democracy matters in school

A Personal View
A Personal View

I received an odd phone call last week. It was from a journalist working for a national newspaper. “I want to ask you about something that a lot of headteachers are refusing to talk about,” she said.

I wondered what this might be. Had some scandal been unearthed at the heart of the education establishment, some unsavoury revelations or illicit behaviour, something so unnerving that even the nation’s school leaders wouldn’t make comment?

After all, headteachers aren’t usually a retiring bunch. Ask us for an opinion on anything and you’ll get our view. In fact, don’t ask us for an opinion and you’ll still get it.

So what material could a London-based journalist have unearthed that would make so many of my colleagues go to ground?

“Would you allow a teacher to tell students who they intend to vote for in the General Election?”

That was it. A question about politics.

When David Cameron’s government took the decision in 2010 to move to fixed-term five-year parliaments, it probably seemed like a good idea. The United Kingdom would move away from snap elections called at the whim of prime ministers who – like crusty old sailors examining the seaweed before deciding whether to head out to distant fishing zones – would make a decision based on their chances of winning.

If it looked as if the economy had picked up, or their political opponents were on the ropes, then the starting-pistol would be fired and a madcap dash towards the election would ensue.

Some people think it gave politics a bad name, making it seem all about snatching power. Fixed-term parliaments were designed to stop that. Elections would happen because Old Father Time decreed it, rather than the personal hunch of a politician.

The drawback is that we may be at the beginning of the longest election campaign ever seen. Voting happens on Thursday, May 7, but already, it seems, there’s political jostling, announcements, claims and counter-claims, and a feeling that some very long months are stretching ahead of us towards that May horizon.

But at least it gives us in schools a chance to bring politics alive for young people. After all, politicians at all levels – from our MPs to town and borough councilors – come in for a lot of stick. You only have to listen to the words of playwright George Bernard Shaw more than a century ago to be reminded that politics has often been viewed cynically: “He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.”

It’s a cheap, unfair jibe. Politicians attract much criticism and rare praise. Just look at the letters page of this newspaper to be reminded of that on a weekly basis.

Yet every hospital we use, every school we attend, every children’s playground, every bit of money spent on amenities, health, tourism or road safety – all of these things will result from decisions made by politicians.

The original Greek word itself means ‘of the citizens’ – people like us working on our behalf.

That’s why for all its inevitable moments of tedium, the build-up to the general election gives a chance for young people to see how relevant politics is, and how we should all engage with the issues. It’s why we are planning our own in-school election and will use it to explore different methods of voting as well as different policies.

It’s also why if teachers are asked by students about their voting plans, we’ll encourage them to discuss the choices we all face and how we might reach our decision.

After all, the right to vote isn’t something that’s furtive or shameful. It’s something in these dark modern times we should celebrate.

If that means talking through the different policies of different parties and what each one offers, then as teachers we are doing something that should be at the heart of our education system.

We’ll be showing young people why democracy matters.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds