A youthful debate

Contemporary political debate is in the doldrums, too often descending into tit-for-tat hurling of insults between two opposing sides. VotesforSchools are trying to change this from the bottom up, going into schools and organising debates on relevant political issues with political figures to encourage pupils to engage in thoughtful and critical debate. Sophie Esslemont of VotesforSchools looks back on when Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack visited a school to discuss the expansion of Heathrow airport.

Amelia Votes for Schools
Amelia Votes for Schools
Sophie Esslemont

Two weeks ago, 150,000 students across the UK discussed the expansion of Heathrow Airport and whether it would be good for Britain. Facilitated by VotesforSchools, a voting platform for young people, children from the ages of 5-18 explored the facts behind the controversial expansion in classrooms around the country, to help them come to an informed decision on whether or not they think it would be a good thing.

They looked at a variety of issues to support their discussion, from how many jobs and apprenticeships the expansion would create, to the money and opportunities it could bring, the concerns people have over worsening air pollution and the reasons many locals are against it. Their verdict? 64.1 per cent of secondary school-aged students and 76.9 per cent of primary-aged students voted no, it would not be good for Britain.

Their comments reflect the diversity of opinion that exists over Heathrow in both Parliament and Britain as a whole, as well as the difficult job politicians have of making decisions on issues where strong arguments exist on both sides – one of the reasons our own politicians have been debating Heathrow expansion for such a long time! One secondary school student commented, “if Heathrow airport expanded, there would be more traffic, pollution and noise. The only thing that would improve is the economy,” while a student on the opposite side said, “the expansion will bring more jobs. This is a great opportunity for Britain to bring in more money.”

Not every student was happy with having to choose one side of the argument, and one aired their frustrations with the whole debate, stating: “Surely in this day and age we can find ways to limit air pollution that don’t include denying people the right to travel the world. We should focus our energy on improving the energy efficiency of transport, instead of arguing about building new transport systems.”

The fact that these are all valid and well-supported opinions make it extremely evident just how critical a skill it is to be able to respect others’ points of view, even those that you disagree with. To me, these comments are testament to the fact that young people are more than capable of articulating their views on complex issues that are often considered too ‘grown up’ for them to understand. When given a balance of facts from each side and questions to help them probe their own values and challenge their assumptions, young people come up with fantastic points on both sides of the fence and should be given the platform to do so. Political issues don’t need to be elitist or intimidating and children do not need to be excluded from them on the basis that they ‘don’t really understand’. Heathrow expansion will impact their lives just like many other decisions made in Parliament will, so we give them the facts and let them be part of the debate.  

VotesforSchools was founded for this very reason – to give young people a voice on the issues that matter, to get them to see that decisions made in Parliament affect their everyday and empower them to make the changes that they want to see in the world. It is hoped that by embedding democratic habits at school, young people will continue to have their say as they go through life. Each week, our team create lessons that give teachers the tools to facilitate a fact-based classroom discussion on a topical or controversial issue in a safe way, whether that’s plastic pollution, the impact of artificial intelligence on the future job market, the dangers of carrying a knife or the UK’s military intervention in Syria (just some of the topics we have engaged young people in this year).

Through engaging in weekly debates that link to the news, students are not only learning more about the world around them but developing essential life skills that will enable them to take part in democratic life when they are old enough to vote in elections. Skills like respecting the diversity of opinion, empathising with people from different circumstances and being critical about information are crucial for everyone to have (not just children), so we are proud of the work we do at VotesforSchools to develop this from the earliest stage possible. Our team believe passionately that these skills help create a more resilient, respectful and cohesive generation who will be more capable of coming up with the solutions to the world’s biggest challenges, which we know is an overwhelming task.

As part of our work, we encourage people in positions of power, whether that’s politicians, campaigners, charities or individuals, to engage with our young voters during the debate by visiting a school or feeding back to the students. For the debate on Heathrow expansion, Amelia Womack was welcomed to one of our primary schools in South East London to engage with a class of Year 4s and hear their views. The children were incredible; enthusiastic, articulate and open-minded, many of them changing their mind as the debate went on and bursting with questions for Amelia including: “Do you ever feel like giving up?”, “What inspired you to go into politics?” and “How can I help the environment at my school?”

What was crystal clear from the buzz in the room is that these children felt empowered by the thought that their voices on the issue would be carried further than the classroom walls. I can’t speak for Amelia but I was astounded at their ability to understand the positives and negatives from both sides of the debate and the time they took to consider both sides before coming to a final decision. I was also saddened by their concern for their environment and their shock at just how toxic the air they breathe is as Londoners.

But despite the state of the air they breathe, these children know how to debate; they listened to each other with respect, they showed empathy for those affected, they came up with plenty of innovative solutions and they critiqued each other’s views without being disrespectful. If these children are the future politicians, journalists and campaigners of tomorrow, then I think we have plenty to be optimistic about, even in the face of immense global challenges!