Published on January 20, 2012

Why democracy should start in the classroom

By Annie Quick

Annie Quick is Researcher and Team Coordinator. She has a background in different methods of deliberation and participation and in youth democracy.

Could giving students more of a say in the way that schools are run lay the groundwork for more engaged and thoughtful citizenship later in life?

The Department for Education is currently running a review of the curriculum (soon to be open to public consultation). One of the subjects in danger of being cut is citizenship education. Many pro-democracy organisations who feel passionately about political education and the need for an active citizenship have been campaigning to maintain it as an important subject. Their general argument is that in a age where the government is relying more and more on an active citizenry, not only to engage in formal politics but also to co-produce public services, it’s madness to cut out the teaching which provides young people with the skills and knowledge to carry out this function.

And quite right too.

And yet, I’m sure I’m not the only one whose memories of citizenship classes are less than inspiring. Apart from anything else, it always seemed to me that there’s something slightly strange about being made to sit in lines listening to my superiors lecturing me about the importance of my rights, responsibilities and the glorious equality of democracy. In fairness, since I was at school, the subject area has developed considerably and there are some fantastic examples of citizenship education which use the time to develop debating skills and critical thinking.

But the general point remains: How effective is it to teach students about democracy in such an undemocratic setting?

While there are some genuinely democratic education models at work in the UK private sector (eg. Sands or Summerhill), the more common form of participation comes in the form of Student Voice. Done properly, the idea is that students are involved as legitimate stakeholders in decision-making about issues affecting them, from timetabling, curriculum, uniform or behaviour. It seems to me that school provides the perfect context to build citizenship on this ‘learning by doing’ basis.

Practice makes perfect

If the government hopes that participation is going to become a way of life then it’s totally unrealistic for this to only kick in at 18. The idea behind Cameron’s National Citizen Service is exactly that starting these ideals young is the way to embed them in society, or, in his words “inspire a generation of young people to appreciate what they can achieve and how they can be part of the Big Society.” But the focus on volunteering and giving to your communities is only one side of the coin – young people also need to get engaged in having their say, making sure that they’re getting what they need from society as well as giving what they can.

We know that attitudes set in early. Participation needs to start early too. And where better than in schools, the institution set up wholly to serve the needs of the students who attend them?

Having a stake

While I don’t want to jump on the riots band-wagon and argue that a lack of student democracy was somehow responsible, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that student democracy can be part of the answer. The LSE and Guardian’s recent research on ‘reading the riots’ found that half of rioters did not see themselves as ‘part of British society.’ They also spoke about the need to be heard, felt marginalised and explained the disturbance as one way of getting people to listen – or even notice – them. The picture painted is one of people, many of them young, who do not see themselves as having a stake in society. Why then, engage constructively in it? It seems to me that a more democratic school system could give people a stake at a crucial point: the first major contact many young people have with society’s public institutions.

Size matters

One of the real challenges with participation on a national scale is that it’s very hard for people to really see the long-term impact of their actions. One of the most consistent findings om participation is that people are more likely to continue participating if can see the difference they have made, or at least that their views have been considered (for example, see our Pathways project or the recent Sciencewise evaluation).

And yet in fact it’s very hard to really see the impact you’ve had on a national level. The numbers of people involved are massive, and the cogs of the machine are many – the actual outcomes on peoples’ lives can be years down the line and it can be difficult to attribute it back to participation. Indeed, this is one of the key arguments for localism. However, in a school context, students setting out to really improve their school could have made a real and visible impact by the time they leave. Experiences like this can give young people the insight into how much difference they can have, a conviction and an self-confidence which can stay with them later in life when participating in larger decisions where the ‘reward’ might be less visible.

Just as importantly students may also be able to see the adverse effects of some of their suggestions, and learn from them. Because the feedback loop is so much shorter, young people have time to learn from their mistakes, developing a more responsive form of citizenship with more insight into the impacts of their actions.

In conclusion…

Over the past 10 years, there has been a general acknowledgement of the importance of students having a say in schools, but not nearly enough focus has been put on its massive potential to feed into the Big Society agenda.

I know I’ve made rather a lot of grand claims, and I’d love to be challenged on them. While the research out there on student voice is very positive, there is not nearly enough, perhaps because it is relatively new as a major national agenda. These claims also come partly from my personal experience working directly with young people within (and excluded from) education through Student Voice. While there are many challenges, I remain optimistic about the impact student participation can have not just on the education system but also on the lives of young people and society as a whole.

As with any participation however, done badly, student voice is worse than nothing at all. While school councils can sometimes be really valuable tools, it still remains that many school councils consist of students chosen directly or indirectly by staff, breeding cynicism early in the rest of the student population. There are, however, a host of other more inclusive methods. To come full circle to the government’s curriculum consultation, citizenship classes are often used to spend time developing genuine student voice programmes, so their protection is key to student democracy as well as political education.

While everyone agrees we need a more active and engaged citizens, it’s much harder to know how to make this happen in practice. A contained mini-society set up precisely to prepare young people for the adult world, seems too good an opportunity to miss.

Image: U.S. National Archives

6 Responses to “Why democracy should start in the classroom”

  1. January 31, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    Hello Annie, even if British leaders are reluctant to look at european trends, you could also read this inspiring book from the council of Europe :

    I have also to add that participatory budgeting within schools could be a very effective way to implement deliberation. Such pilots exist in France (Poitou-Charentes) and also in UK with Every1counts :

  2. February 1, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Hi Gilles, really interesting, thanks. Particularly excited about Participatory budgeting eg. – had never really thought about this in relation to education.

    As a bit of a challenge, though, one of the key principles of PB is that it that in order to be genuine it really needs to be for mainstream services. (More about that here:

    In the case of education, where most schools are unlikely to give students final say over mainstream budgetary decisions, there may be a trade-offup between giving students total say over a small amount of money (which happens quite often eg. student councils often have a small budget they can choose how to spend) or getting their involvement in the bigger decisions about how the overall school budget is spent. For me, the former could be seen as tokenism, whereas the latter really involves weighing up trade-offs and considering the bigger picture – a really useful experience and skill for citizenship in general.

    Nevertheless, it looks like a great project – thanks for the heads up!

  3. February 1, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Hi Annie,

    Thanks very much for linking to us via Twitter but has no current connection to us – although we are starting to explore the possibility of getting involved.

    My tuppance on the debate you’ve raised is that there is too much focus on a ‘school council’ as the only way for Student Voice to be addressed. As you raise yourself, it replicates (on a small scale) the political system of this country where a few make decisions for many with often only a pretence of consultation. These few are highly engaged, often hand-picked, articulate and politically minded – not the people who riot because their voice isn’t heard.

    What we’re trying to do is help everyone get involved in conversations from the outset and form their own teams/groups to action ideas they have. Really buy into them. The problem with naming a specific set of people to deal with everything is that it’s exclusionary – it’s ‘us and them’ and once you form it, it’s first aim is to self-sustain rather than solve the problems it was set up to solve. If people take charge on specific issues they feel passionately about then they are more likely to be championed properly and therefore more likely to be addressed.

    (I’m being a little inflammatory I know but I much prefer when people comment like this on my blog…)


  4. February 1, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Oh no! Both started with every1 and I jumped to conclusions. A happy accident though as I pulled you into the conversation though to get your tuppence!

    Inflammatory comments more than welcome, although I couldn’t agree more with your point about the need to widen things out. Thankfully, I think there is more and more recognition of the need for other student voice programmes to get more people involved – there are a couple of interesting egs at George Mitchell School, for example:

  5. February 1, 2012 at 10:48 am

    I was aware of George Mitchell School a few months ago and we spoke to them about demo-ing the second version of our Software which launches in a week or so. We’re trying to find schools to trial it now so if any spring to mind, please pass them on!

  6. February 1, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Hello Annie,

    I totally agree with you. That’s the aim of the People’s budget campaign. Now more than ever, when massive cuts are being made, ordinary people should be involved in deciding how our money should be spent. When more people are involved in how public money is spent better decisions are made, even with youth. That’s what participatory budgeting is all about. And the campaign is working with community groups to help them win:
    (1) Any kind of Participatory Budgeting in their area
    (2) making sure it is repeated again
    (3) Participatory Budgeting across the whole authority area
    (4) 1% of the budget is decided using Participatory Budgeting

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