Election prompts a crash course in political literacy

The Telegraph, 02/05/15, Britain’s schools are using the contest on May 7 as an opportunity for students to engage with real-world issues. HMC member schools Sedbergh SchoolOundle SchoolMonkton Combe SchoolLincoln Minster School and Felsted School feature.

If sixth-form students of voting age at Sedbergh School in Cumbria are planning on staying in bed on May 7, they should expect their headmaster to hoick them out of it. “I’d say, don’t be pathetic!” Andrew Fleck explains from his study, where the spring weather has thrown glorious sunlight over the Cumbrian hills.

It’s election season – have you heard? – and not to be left out, the nation’s schools have got in on the action, arranging local candidates’ hustings and running their own mock elections.

The Hansard Society, a charity founded in 1944 to promote parliamentary democracy, has been organising such activities in British schools for more than 50 years.

“It’s too early to say how many schools are holding a mock election this year,” Dr Ruth Fox, Hansard’s director and head of research, says. While some schools will run an election independently, “more than 200 schools have registered to use our mock election resources in the last week alone”.

While some teenagers might wonder about the relevance of taking part in a “pretend” election, political engagement is – cue official statement – of vital importance.

“Political literacy should be a basic skill,” Dr Fox says. “Some MPs first stood for election in a mock election at school and it inspired them to go on to Westminster.”

While the 2010 cohort might not be the preferred role models of 2015’s first year electorate, democracy still reigns, and the earlier that children start learning how it works, the better.

At Oundle School in Rutland, where last year’s mock Scottish referendum enjoyed a high turn out, pupils will have no excuse not to vote on May 7. “Every house, both boarding and day, will act as a constituency so pupils will not even need to leave their house to vote,” Matt King, head of politics, explains.

One of his charges, lower sixth former Hetty Hodgson, is buzzing. “I am looking forward to the general election profusely!” she enthuses. “With this excitement comes slight nerves as I realise that the outcome of this election could have greater implications in the future, for good or for bad.”

At many schools, pupils have been at the centre of the school pre-election activities. Tom Robinson, Sedbergh’s head of school, brought up the idea of a local candidates’ hustings, and, Andrew Fleck says, “the next thing I knew, it was all happening.”

Invited along was local Lib Dem candidate Tim Farron, for the Westmorland and Lonsdale seat, who has close links with the school – “he pops in and out pretty frequently”.

The pupil response has been terrific, Robinson says. “Some of the pupils came up to me afterwards saying, 'If I’m honest, Tom, I didn’t think this would be my sort of thing, but I loved it and I was gripped.’ These pupils, by their own admission, had little knowledge of politics, but it really opened their eyes to the different policies that each party stands for.”

At the pre-election hustings held before Easter at Monkton Combe School in Bath, Jacob Rees Mogg was one of the candidates questioned by pupils. Teacher Sam Palmer is quick to note that the evening was all down to one pupil, the 17-year-old (and 23 days too young to vote in the general election) Dan Mangles, who organised the evening.

“As the election approaches, the focus in Britain is inevitably drawn towards the personalities behind the policies, and I have become increasingly aware of how little even the most knowledgeable voters are exposed to these,” Mangles explains. “Inviting politicians to debate and talk with youth was an opportunity to break this barrier.”

At Lincoln Minster School, the indefatigable Ian Thomson runs the mock elections. In 2010, the school witnessed a Conservative landslide, but early opinion polls show a tighter race. This year, candidates are running for the Conservatives, Labour and Monster Raving Loony Party (MRLP) – “the school’s Ukip candidate defected to the Tories early in the campaign”, and there is no Lib Dem candidate. “Maybe that will be reflected nationally,” Thomson muses.

Pupils from all parties are looking forward to the general election. “The chances of an overall majority are very slim,” the Minster’s MRLP candidate James says, while his Tory opposition candidate Charles recognises the importance of paying attention, however old you are.

“For many who are unable to vote, an interest in politics provides good awareness of recent events, understanding of how the country operates, and valuable knowledge for life and day‑to‑day conversation.”

It is not just senior school pupils that will benefit this term from pre-election education. At Felsted School in Essex, while the senior school enjoyed a mock election back in February to avoid a clash with the dastardly exam timetable, now it’s the prep school’s turn.

“Our oldest pupils will be voting in the next election, so it’s vital that they take an interest now,” coordinator Brian Hays explains. “Democracy is critical in our PSHCE curriculum.”

Sedbergh’s Andrew Fleck agrees. “Most primary or prep schools have school councils [and] by the time pupils arrive in senior school, they have a strong grasp [of democracy]. The disconnect that senior schools have to respond to is taking that local appreciation and experience, and connecting it to a political class that seems quite far removed.”

But whatever the result of any election, what should pupils be taking away from this time of year?

“We want them to move beyond preconceptions or prejudices and to think independently about the bigger picture,” Oundle’s Matt King says. Rakesh Pathak from Felsted agrees: “[They must consider] that there is a world beyond school and the classroom which really matters!”

The importance of actually voting cannot be stressed enough, either. While Ian Thomson hasn’t perceived any of the “ 'revolutionary’ disaffection advocated by Russell Brand”, pupils must “recognise that their vote matters, and if they don’t vote, they have no right to complain about the outcome”.

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