Lord Mike Storey: Russell Brand is wrong. We need to engage young people in democracy

Mike Storey used Oral Questions in the Lords today to quiz the Government about engaging young people in democracy – coincidentally, the morning after Russell Brand rubbished the idea in a Newsnight interview. The key, he says, are quality citizenship lessons in schools followed by the chance to register to vote

Lord Storey
Lord Storey

During Lords Questions this morning, I asked the Government how it is ensuring that young people are given the tools to understand, engage and participate in the UK’s political and democratic systems.

On a day when the press were zoning in on Russell Brand’s ‘I’ve never voted, never will’ spat with Jeremy Paxman, I pressed the Minister on how the Coalition is planning to support youth democracy groups in its efforts to increase awareness via voter registration. One thing I know Russell Brand won’t find surprising is that if an election was called tomorrow, only 12% of young people would be certain to vote. A recent YouGov survey asked almost 1,000 young people if they had ever voted in a general or local election – only 47% had done so.

Statistics such as these should be wake-up calls for politicians. It’s for these reasons that I support campaigns such as the British Youth Council, Operation Black Vote and the work of the Citizenship Foundation. All young people should leave school with an understanding of the political, legal and economic functions of society, as well as, crucially, the social and moral awareness to thrive in it. Like me, I’m sure the Foundation has praised the Coalition for ensuring that active citizenship education remains a central tenant of the secondary curriculum. But more must be done.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t pleased with the Answer I received from Lib Dem Minister, Baroness Lindsay Northover. The Government has cemented compulsory citizenship education for 11- to 16-year-olds and highlighted the subject’s importance at GCSE with the new ‘best 8’ attainment measure. Yet I suggest we should turn these good words into great education. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to describe citizenship as a ‘doss’ subject. Most young people participate in politics on an issue-by-issue basis. And just look at the Ofsted reports (2009-12). A quarter of schools had insufficient citizenship teaching standards. Where standards lacked, attempts to improve them was superficial. I hope the Government will reflect on how standards may be improved, bearing in mind at all times, that practical citizenship education must be engaging, useful and fun.

An easy way to accomplish this is to encourage schools to recruit properly qualified citizenship teachers. Here it’s worth highlighting that free schools and academies, which have greater freedom over their curricula, aren’t in fact required to teach citizenship. How will the Government keep the National Curriculum ‘national’, ensuring that all pupils are given an equal opportunity to grasp the importance of citizenship?

Furthermore, in highlighting the importance of getting young people to register, then vote, I expressed my support for Bite the Ballot and its efforts to increase the number of young people actively participating in democracy. In the past I have attended their debates in Parliament where young people are invited to directly engage with parliamentarians on the issues that matter to them (as set out in ‘My Manifesto’). I was extremely impressed by the enthusiastic response from so many young people who were actively engaged in politics, many of whom had never heard of the electoral register.

This is why I’m calling for all young people to be equally engaged at school. Government says that the new National Curriculum will underpin students’ interest in how democracy works, thereby increasing interest in voting and voter registration. Like Bite the Ballot, I believe that the Government needs to do more. 16- and 17-year-olds need opportunities as well as reasons to register to vote. Why can’t every citizenship course culminate in the opportunity to register? A question I hope to pursue.

‘Active citizenship’ must be just that; active. I was delighted to hear the Government voice their support for National Voter Registration Day on February 5 next year and I urge all organisations – schools, supermarkets, community groups and students’ unions – to pledge their support to a cause that’s central to the health and future of our democracy.

Published and promoted by Tim Gordon on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, both at LDHQ, 8-10 Great George Street, London, SW1P 3AE.

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