We stand only two weeks from the General Election, and there’s certainly a sense of anticipation in certain areas of the Grammar School. Our Politics teachers,
Mr Dawkins and Miss Jenkins are excited about their subject at the best of times, but the engagement of their A Level students augurs very well for the future of our democracy. Sixth Formers are taking their responsibilities in informing younger pupils very seriously. Such enthusiasm is extremely pleasing to see considering that recent election turnout in the Under 25 bracket has been so poor. Their only disappointment is that, so early in the academic year, relatively few Year 13 students have turned 18 and are able to vote.
This Tuesday saw our first election hustings with five Sixth Formers (including a High School student) representing Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Brexit Parties in Senior Assembly in front of Years 11-13. Command of policy detail was excellent, but more impressive still was the quality of rhetoric with points hammered home through repetition and judicious use of humour. Our intention in devoting assembly time to such events is to raise boys’ awareness of what the different parties stand for, and to encourage them to engage with contrasting views on controversial issues. Next week, we will do the same in front of Years 6-10 believing that boys are never too young to be exposed to the arguments that will shape their lives. We will run our vote at breaktime and lunchtime on the 12 December election day. Our ‘polling station’ is the Orangery beneath the Tower, which lends a sense of tradition to the process. Our returning officers will then have to work hard to turn around the results in time for school assembly on the last day of term.
We will be urging in the strongest terms each 18-year-old to vote in the General Election, believing that a citizen has a duty to inform himself about the options available to him, and arguing that one has no right to criticise the politicians of the day if one refuses to participate in the democratic process. I personally wouldn’t go as far as Australia with its compulsory system supported by fines for non-voters. It seems to be to be a contradiction in terms in a democracy that one would be forced to vote; after all, freedom of speech includes the freedom not to speak. Nevertheless, at the Grammar School we think that our boys, once old enough, ought to vote, as we wish them to be active members of any group or community of which they are a member. One of our aims is to produce engaged young men who think about how they can have a positive influence on others. We don’t want passivity and apathy to have any place in their lives. I therefore see voting as a duty rather than merely a right that we might take or leave.
We are therefore keen to promote any form of political involvement. A Year 13 boy stood unsuccessfully for last summer’s Council Elections in Sutton Bonington, which demonstrated quite remarkable commitment bearing in mind the proximity of his
A Levels. I understand that at least two avid Corbynistas attended the Labour leader’s speech at Loughborough University a week ago. I have heard some passionate political disagreements in the lunch hall, albeit without any sense of personal vitriol! There are a lot of informal political discussions taking place between students and with tutors in form time, but I should also point out that the political system is covered in our Year 12 ‘Ut Vivas’ PSHE curriculum to ensure that all Sixth Formers have sufficient understanding of how our democracy works and how they ought to contribute.
There has been debate in recent years about whether the voting age should be reduced to 16, as happened with the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. I listened to such a discussion on the radio a few weeks ago, where I disagreed vehemently with the patronising view expressed by two members of the panel, who characterised young people as lacking the maturity to engage with complex political issues. This cartoonish perspective shows no understanding of students’ engagement, as we have seen with recent international environmental movements. If truth be told, a very large number of adults have little understanding of or interest in the key issues facing our country, yet we do not challenge their right to vote for reasons of ignorance. We are taking every opportunity to speak to boys about the imminent election, and from this we have every faith in the desire of young people to engage with politics. I am sure that the voting age will fall within the next decade, and that Grammar School boys will be well equipped to take advantage.