Failing to prepare young people for civic life, is preparing society to fail
Since August 2018 over 1,000 young people aged 13 – 16 in England have pledged to ‘talk democracy’ with their peers as part of the Young Citizens Cabinet Office funded programme, Democracy Ambassadors.
Nearly 70 organisations from both rural and urban areas across England including: youth councils, social action projects, youth groups, creative arts organisations and schools have come together to train the next generation of decision makers in their rights as citizens. Participants have learnt about the issues of democracy and the importance of exercising their right to vote.
Following their training the young people – called ‘Democracy Ambassadors’ – use a range of techniques online and offline to share what they have learnt with other young people. The programme’s intended legacy is that more than 100,000 young people will feel better equipped and more confident in using the language and structures of our democratic systems.
21st century techniques for talking democracy
Forget the image of a teacher stood in front of a class of glazed eyed students, reciting acts of parliament. Imagine instead polls shared on Instagram, ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ style quiz shows, puppet theatre, memes, and YouTube videos. The Democracy Ambassadors programme supports young people to engage with their peers where they’re at, talking to them in a common language about the key political issues the younger generation feel impassioned by.
In Woking, three Democracy Ambassadors from the youth council worked together to create a YouTube video entitled ‘Democracy: everything you need to know in under three minutes’. In a carefully crafted visual scrapbook the young people unpick key political terms, including explaining the role of parliament and the government, and the importance of registering to vote. It’s simple, slick, and had been watched by hundreds of people within the first few weeks of production.
Meanwhile, in the north east of England, Durham City Youth Project Democracy Ambassadors completing a training activity were shocked to learn that England had a civil war in the C17th. In response to this and other key turning points in England’s democratic history they created a series of memes which were then shared with other young people via Facebook.
In Staffordshire, Democracy Ambassadors from the Council for Voluntary Youth Services wanted to find out how many of their peers knew who their local MP was, or how to contact them. They created Instagram polls for this purpose – short snapshots which encouraged more than 400 of their followers to engage with the questions. Many continued the conversation offline – including enquiries about the work of the youth council and the possibilities of joining them.
Is it the communication method that doesn’t suit younger audiences?
In a digital age the Democracy Ambassadors programme has allowed young people to re-educate their adult facilitators in ways of communicating with the next generation. It is often said that young people ‘aren’t interested’ in politics, but the success of this programme has demonstrated the opposite – is it simply that the methods adults use to communicate no longer match the needs of a younger audience?
In the West Midlands, where Redshaw Gleason CIC have been delivering the Democracy Ambassadors programme in schools for young people with additional needs, a traditional puppet show complete with a wooden spoon Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in tweeds have made their debut, as young people there seek to explain the different political parties to their peers. So before you tear up all your flash cards and throw the flipchart in the bin – maybe there still is an appetite for some old fashioned face to face chat (and a bit of Punch and Judy).
Stella has been managing the national uptake of the Democracy Ambassadors programme over the past 6 months. Programme funding is due to finish at the end of March 2019, and a full evaluation report will be available in Sept – visit our website again then for the findings.