The habits of democracy.

For educators, elections are a great opportunity to teach our students about the democratic process with all its strengths and limitations. We rightly emphasise the need to register and the importance of voting (”people fought for this…you can’t complain if you don’t vote” etc.). We organise hustings, mock elections and we try to bring some of the excitement of the election campaign into our educational work. In the UK, we’ve certainly had plenty of opportunities for this since 2014, with 2 general elections, European parliament elections, the EU referendum and, in London, the GLA and mayoral elections. In fact, from an educational perspective, implementing the Chartist demand for annual parliaments would be a pretty good way to promote our students political education.

Elections are the unmissable appointments in democracy’s calendar; the festivals no citizens can afford to ignore. Voting is the essential act of democratic decision-making; the great opportunity to make our voice heard, to choose between alternative interpretations of the present, alternative visions of the future and alternative representatives to trust with a mandate to act on our behalf for a period.

But if voting is the apogee of the democratic process, it requires a whole structure of understanding and experience to support it. In the excitement of the contest between parties and the build-up to polling day itself we must remember that a vibrant, effective democracy depends on a whole fabric of awareness of the world, how it works and how it can be changed. The actual act of voting, while essential, is actually one of the least frequent of what we can describe as the habits of democracy.

So, what are these habits and how can we develop them? Quite simply, we need to create as many opportunities as possible, as often as possible, for young people to reflect on issues of public concern, to consider a wide range of views, to question assumptions, to debate with others and to critically evaluate alternative positions and claims. This needs to include practical experience of deliberation, consensus-building, and decision-making as well as learning to cope with losing an argument or a vote.

In our college this has meant developing a vibrant and representative Student Council and Student Union. Participation in our Student Union elections is regularly the highest in the education sector and turnout is above the national rate for 18-24 year olds (2015 general election). Our student governors are also exemplary representatives, contributing to the highest level of corporate decision-making. It has meant consulting students about issues which matter to them and listening carefully to what they have to say. It has meant developing our students’ debating and advocacy skills through The East London Citizens Organisation, debating societies, Model United Nations and Free Speech projects with English PEN. It has also meant getting students to think about the importance of democracy itself as one of our core values. Amongst other things, our discussions about this year’s US and French presidential elections or about early Athenian democracy help to emphasise the point that not all democratic systems are the same and that no democratic system is perfect.

Our college is a founding member of ‘Votes for Colleges’ which builds on ‘Votes for Schools’ and will offer sixth formers across the country the opportunity to consider and vote on a key question of public policy every week. The case for and against a particular proposition will be evidenced, giving everyone the tools they need to engage in a considered debate and to make their own mind up. The fact that the vote takes place on a single day and that national results are publicly shared makes it all the more real. The national ‘Votes for Colleges’ programme was launched at NewVIc on 8th May and we would encourage every sixth form in the country to join up. We are convinced this can make a real impact on young people’s ‘habits of democracy’ – building and strengthening them across the country.

What we do on polling day is clearly vitally important but what we do in the months and years in between elections is just as decisive. If elections give breadth to our democracy by seeking to involve every citizen, education can give it depth by ensuring that every citizen is equipped for meaningful involvement. Our democratic instincts have to be supported by democratic habits – and these need to be learned and practiced. Our schools and colleges need to be the incubators of those habits, fostering and nurturing them every single day of the year. The future health of our democracy depends on it.

See also:

Young people debate free speech in the House of Lords (December 2016)

London Citizens’ Mayoral Assembly: 28th April 2016 (April 2016)

Young people discuss the future of London (March 2016)

Young people and the election (April 2015)

Voting and the habit of democracy (May 2014)

Votes for Colleges


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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