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Call for referendum lessons in schools

Pupils should be educated about the independence referendum in schools if the vote is extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, electoral experts and parents have said.

Unions have called for resources and guidance to be made available to schools and colleges on a "non- partisan and non-party political basis" to help inform young people.

The calls come amid expectations the voting age will be lowered for the 2014 poll to decide the future of Scotland.

Alex Salmond and David Cameron are expected to agree the details of the referendum when they meet in Scotland on Monday.

However, the prospect of a younger band of voters being eligible for the first time has thrown open a debate about the role schools might play in preparing pupils for the historic poll.

On Wednesday, former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said the issue had huge implications because it would "bring politics into our schools".

Last night, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) said greater discussion of politics in the classroom was welcome, with teachers "quite capable" of dealing with the issue impartially.

In addition, the ERS said targeted education explaining the referendum and the options available for those who would have a vote was also crucial.

The National Parent Forum Scotland (NPFS) welcomed the suggestion, but stressed any new materials would have to be produced independently of government or political influence.

However, the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) said young people were already taught about the importance of using their vote, and no additional lessons were required.

The Scottish Government appeared to rule out any specific materials being produced for schools, suggesting information would be provided to all voters in the same way.

Willie Sullivan, Scottish director of the ERS, told The Herald: "It is a huge opportunity for schools to use the referendum to engage pupils with ideas of democracy. We also believe consideration should be given to providing tailored lessons to those pupils who will be voting in the referendum."

The idea was supported by Iain Ellis, chairman of the NPFS, although he also stressed the importance of parental involvement.

"You can't just spring a decision of this significance on 16-year-olds without some form of information campaign," he said. "Materials for pupils should be produced by an independent body such as the Electoral Commission."

The Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union also called for new materials, with a spokesman saying: "Appropriate resources and guidance for schools and colleges should be made available, on a non-partisan and non-party political basis, to allow the issues to be explored in an appropriate fashion."

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the SSTA, said pupils were already well schooled in democracy.

"Citizenship has been a crucial part of the curriculum for many years covering issues of engagement with society, including elections," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Electoral Commission said that if it was given a role in the referendum it would assess awareness levels among all age groups, including pupils.

"We would first carry out research with all eligible voters to see how much awareness people had," she said. "That research would inform any subsequent public information campaigns and information materials that we would produce."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "The consultation paper made clear that the Electoral Commission will be responsible for publishing guidance for voters.

"If 16 and 17-year-olds are to be given the vote, they should be given information about the referendum in exactly the same way as other voters, and not treated differently."

l Ministers have been accused of treating voters with contempt for pressing ahead with Monday's planned referendum deal between Mr Salmond and Mr Cameron before publication of the consultation process on issues such as votes at 16 and the crucial issue of a second question.

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