Why don’t we really teach the value of democracy?

1229 is a very long time ago. It is also the date of the first recorded student strike and it happened here in Paris. In many cases student strikes are focused on universities, but increasingly school aged students are using strikes (or perhaps more accurately boycotts) to make their voice heard. The story of Greta Thunberg is indeed an inspiring one and the message that she and other protestors send is one that politicians would be wise to heed.

student voice democracy school speaker

As Headmaster, I can’t say that I believe that missing a day of school to register a message, however important, is the best way to promote a position or idea. For me, the message that the strike or boycott sends today is a clear one that speaks of the frustrations that our young people (globally) feel about their voice, their view, their future. If today’s actions teach me anything, it is that adults and particularly adults who wield power be it economic or political have a duty to consider the effects of their decisions on future generations.

In 2016 Scotland held a referendum on independence. It was the first major UK election in which young people were given the opportunity to be active participants in a democratic exercise. I followed the progress of this franchise extension with great interest and it was very clear to me, very quickly that the Scottish electorate aged 16-18 were some of the most well informed, open-minded and responsible participants in the debate on devolution. When the UK voted on Brexit the franchise was limited to over 18s; I leave it to you to decide if that was a wise idea. Young people should not have to strike to have their voice heard, they should have the right to engage with the full political process.

Youth rarely has the opportunity to speak meaningfully to power. Too often the political and decision making process uses youth as a decoration rather than placing it where it should be, at the core of all that is being decided in their name. Greta Thunberg is one of a long line of powerful speakers who happen to be too young to vote. A number of nations have taken the plunge and have given the full right to vote to under 18s, perhaps the closest to home is Austria who opened up the ballots in 2011. Critics voice concerns over maturity, non-payment of tax, a lack of interest or a lack of an awareness or responsibility. Much the same can be said of the electorate in general. I know many sixteen year olds who are far more politically aware than some fifty year olds and let’s face it they are probably more interested in the long term consequences of political decisions made today. Perhaps there is an argument for capping the age of voting, although I’m not sure when you lose the right to influence the future.

Perhaps what has happened today will nudge the current crop of politicians to grow up a bit and recognise that youth not only has a voice, but that it is their responsibility as the elected custodians of state to engage meaningfully with this community in making decisions that affect not just the present but the future.

Nicholas Hammond