The prospect of 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence in two years' time is causing a considerable flutter among their elders.
Now that the measure is expected to be included in the formal agreement signed by Alex Salmond and David Cameron on Monday, should we be concerned that it will bring politics into the classroom?
Whether this is a problem or something to be welcomed as likely to encourage young people to vote depends entirely on the approach taken. The former Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Lord Forsyth, has warned of the huge implications of bringing politics into our schools. He failed to specify his misgivings but the implication was that there is a danger of bias. No teacher or parent could or should support that.
Yet the possibility of today's 14-year-olds, who have barely given a thought to politics, having a say in the most significant decision on the future of both Scotland and the UK in three centuries requires that they are brought up to speed on the pros, cons and consequences. The question is whether that should be in school, at home, through public information campaigns or the media.
The Electoral Reform Society believes schools should seize the opportunity offered by the referendum to engage pupils with concepts of democracy and the importance of using their vote. Few would disagree with that. However, as the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association says, such issues are already covered in the citizenship courses which are a key part of the curriculum from a young age. The association's opposition to additional lessons for the teenagers who will be added to the electoral register for the referendum is at odds with both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns. This is significant. The enthusiasm of politicians on each side for the issues to be the subject of lessons suggests a need for caution. Teachers must be demonstrably impartial so it stands to reason that classroom teaching must be distanced from political campaigns.
That does not mean schools and teachers cannot engage with the issues around independence; they should do so with enthusiasm through debates, discussion and mock campaigning outside lessons. Young people are more likely to be engaged by the single focus of the referendum and its momentous consequences than the arguments at elections, where the turnout of 18 to 24-year-olds is disappointingly low. Most 16 and 17-year-olds will, we trust, be hungry for information before voting Yes or No and they should be able to add neutral material from the Electoral Commission to that provided by the campaigns.
The Electoral Reform Society is right to see the referendum as an educational opportunity for young voters but we all have a duty to inform ourselves as fully as possible before casting our votes. Parents and families should encourage active citizenship by sharing information and engaging in discussion with newly enfranchised teenagers. Our future is in their hands.
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