Last week, I took part in a fascinating RSA panel discussion about teaching tomorrow’s citizens, where we were asked to consider the role of schools in preparing citizens of the future. My particular take was on the question of democratic renewal, particularly after the EU referendum, and how best to prepare young people for lives of engaged and active citizenship.
My overall argument is that the best way of doing so is not to limit it to the curriculum or formal citizenship education (which is unarguably also important), but also through citizenship practice, by changing the design of student government. Instead of elections, randomly selecting students to partake in student government on a rotating practice can help to instil a sense of civic rights and responsibility in a larger and more diverse group of students.
According to the Department of Education, around 90% of schools have student councils, where children formally represent their peers in school affairs. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the National Foundation for Education Research finds that only two fifths of students feel student councils are an effective way of gathering their views.
This is surely down to a number of reasons. Some of them are technical: no or small budgets, a lack of training to carry out roles properly, and the challenge of being heard outside of the council chamber. But besides those technical reasons, there is a bigger overarching problem. The design of the process of engagement in civic life at school: elections. Student council elections are, arguably, the worst introduction to democracy. They are a popularity contest. A process designed to engage the most confident and ambitious students. This is often people’s first encounter with democracy. A model of an adversarial system and the product of a debating culture, where students try to develop the best arguments and undermine those of others. They seek points of difference, rather than attempting to find common ground.
What if, instead, student councils were dedicated to democratic innovation, to experimentation and to capacity building?
What if they were determined to experiment with new deliberative forms of governance?
What if, instead of elections, every term a new set of students were randomly chosen, purely by chance, to be the student council? Or it could be every month, or every two months, or every year – the point is to experiment and see what works best.
This could be a positive change for three main reasons: civic responsibility; agency, and diversity of representation.
First, it has the potential to instil a sense of civic responsibility. If you are chosen, it is your duty, as a citizen, to contribute to solving your community’s (in this case, your school’s) problems and find common ground to develop a solution. In the same vein, a randomly selected student council would also avoid normalising disengagement. Everyone has an equal right and an equal responsibility to be engaged.
Second, the opportunity to have a say, to actively contribute, to develop social leadership skills, would be widened beyond those who are already confident enough to put themselves up for elections. It would help develop a sense of agency, especially in those students for whom this doesn’t come naturally. A student from Arrow Vale RSA Academy, sitting in the audience, asked the pertinent question: what do we do with students who are too shy or can’t be bothered to take part?
In my view, this is why this approach to student councils should be supported by a leadership training and mentorship programme. Whether students or elected or chosen, they need to be taught how to carry out their roles. Shy students might need extra encouragement. Those who might not be bothered if they are chosen might need reminding that it is their civic duty to play a role in their school’s affairs and have help to develop the leadership skills they require to support them to do this.
Third, by experimenting with random selection and rotation, a larger, more diverse and more representative sample of students can get involved.
Schools and educational institutions are a good environment in which to experiment for three reasons: it’s a small setting; there is a lack of vested interests, and it is a relatively low-risk environment for experimentation. Particularly in a post-Brexit scenario, schools could be the perfect place to start tinkering from the ground up about how to renew our democracy. How we can move towards more consensual, deliberative democracy and away from the adversarial nature of representative democracy or the divisive ‘us versus them’ aspect of populist democracy.
By giving as many young people as possible the opportunity to take part in the messy process of decision-making, naturally fraught with compromise and trade-offs, we would also be shaping a new generation more attuned to the difficult nature of governing. Students would come out with a practical sense of how politics and democracy can be done differently and the impetus to make it happen.
There is an organisation called ‘Democracy in Practice’ which is doing just this – working with schools to develop new democratic institutions based around random selection and rotation. To me, this is the essence of preparing students for engaged and active citizenship. Not just through curriculum and lesson time, but through doing.
Claudia Chwalisz is a Consultant at Populus and a Crook Public Service Fellow at the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. She is the author of The people’s verdict: Adding informed citizen voices to public decision-making (Forthcoming spring 2017) and The populist signal: Why politics and democracy need to change (2015).
Watch: Teaching Tomorrow’s Citizens - a jointly organised RSA and RSA Academies event.