“He should be REMOVED from any type of educational system and locked up,” wrote ‘Bossman’ on Twitter, in response to David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, calling for the voting age to be lowered to six years old. Bossman’s tweet was indicative of the response of many, seeing it as frivolous, frothy intellectualism befitting of such an antiquated institution that, today, appears to generate ridicule and criticism across much of the press.
But is Runciman’s proposal really that silly? Arguably, it’s sillier that we consider democracy a right to be ‘earned,’ when the only reason some rights are earned to begin with is because of biology, such as the right to drive or to have sex. It’s even sillier that we unquestionably allow all adults to vote (unless they break the law) whilst simultaneously forbidding all under-18s from voting.
Practically, lowering the voting age to six may prove too difficult (for it would be a godsend to politically-minded parents), but the foundations of Runciman’s thinking are worth pursuing on the left. Fundamentally, the proposal is about trying to rebalance incentives in an ageing society where the citizens of the future feel disenfranchised and disillusioned – one way to do this effectively is in schools.
Calls for civic education are not new. PSHE (Physical, Social and Health Education) has been a part of the national curriculum since 2000, but it’s woefully under-utilised. “The lack of a standardised approach is a cop-out,” wrote the Guardian’s Secret Teacher last year, which “emphasises the government’s lack of consideration for PSHE as a subject.” Instead, teaching is largely devolved to individual schools, where any teacher who happens to be free will be shoved in to lead a PSHE class.
As the government’s own study of PSHE education uncovered, this devolution leads to different teaching methods and different modes of assessment – or none at all. The report also found that primary schools were likelier to prioritise its teaching than secondary schools, despite the more pressing need for teenagers to have an understanding of their role in the world than young children. Most worryingly, the report concludes by outlining a “lack of clear or shared understanding on the nature of and rationale for PSHE education amongst teachers and schools.”
Tinkering within the existing educational framework does not work, evidently, yet that is where all education reform has resided for decades now. It is no longer a question of content; if it were, PSHE would be as integral to the curriculum as English or Maths. 21st Century social democracy must broaden its horizons: how can the delivery of education, and the principles behind it, change?
Historically, school has been for the pursuit of academic and vocational study, but what if its purpose was to be a microcosm of society instead? If the aim of socialism is to create attachments between people, with parliamentary democracy being the ultimate large-scale model, then the democratisation of schools must surely be the ultimate model for young people, who have become used to an atomised world in which school is merely a service provider.
Educational democratisation is not entirely far-fetched. It already exists in a limited form through student unions and councils, although the lack of a national framework for this leaves them, by-and-large, ineffective, there as a means for students to participate in extra-curricular activities. Parent governors can also be directly elected. More importantly, Labour has already begun thinking about how to further democratise society, with Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that journalists could vote for their editors and the public could vote for the BBC content they want to watch. In the shadow chancellor’s office, John McDonnell continues to work away on plans for democratising the economy, the policy of placing workers on company boards being the star proposal.
Let’s take exams. There is not a student, nor teacher, who enjoys exams, and there is inevitably a wealth of bones to pick with the courses themselves. Under the paternalistic model of education, school staff and teachers decide on which exam board to go study through, but what if the choice was put to the student body in a vote? There would be no risk of a ‘Boaty McBoatface’ result because, obviously, the only options would be the legitimate exam boards. At best, a majority of students would be studying with exam boards they have chosen. At worst, spoiled ballots would win a majority, which could lead to teachers choosing as they are used to – but, if the students are unhappy, then future cohorts would be likelier to participate.
Small-scale educational democracy would combat these feelings of ambivalence amongst students and would avoid the pitfalls of national democracy, which produces its own sense of alienation; the sample size is small enough for the decisions taken to be of direct consequence to students, thereby encouraging participation and, by extension, fostering community.
Taking this further, what if headteachers were elected by students and teachers? Any teacher would have to nominate themselves to stand for headteacher and articulate their vision for the school. They would be true representatives of their school, just as democratic leaders are, at least in theory, true representatives of their nations.
Such a proposal appears bold, but, in practice, it is unlikely that much would change. As occurs now, school governors could oversee the leadership of a school, with regular elections held to ensure democratic legitimacy; perhaps they should occur every four to five years, to ensure a rough correlation between the headteacher and the electorate that voted for them.
The chief concern for elected headteachers is its impact on school life. Teachers in open competition with one another for an audience of adolescents seems like a recipe for disaster, fostering unnecessary tensions amongst colleagues and classes. Perhaps, like lowering the voting age to six, it is impractical for schools to elect their headteachers, but is indicative of the kind of imaginative thinking that must continue to evolve on the left.
If David Runciman’s intervention tells us anything, it is that society remains deeply hostile to handing enfranchisement and authority to young people. The equivalency of wisdom with age is deeply entrenched in western culture and, evidently, cannot be undone just by lowering the voting age. Perhaps the best way to tackle this and create a world where everybody feels they are a citizen of somewhere is to go back to the beginning and reform the schools.