The importance of citizenship education in the era of Brexit

As an American student, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, commonly known as Brexit, seemed like an “across the pond” problem that wouldn’t have any profound effect on me. However, last year I made the decision to study and intern in London for the spring of 2019, and I realised the big, bad, Brexit that had been hanging out in the back of mind for years would now become an up-close-and-personal issue.

When I got my internship placement at Young Citizens, I was excited to be at a charity focused on citizenship education for young people. Being an informed and active citizen has always been important to me, and the lack of political education in schools – both in the United States and the UK – has become apparent to me over the last few years.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a debate at the British Library, put on by the Political Studies Association. It focused on Brexit, young people and politics – which made it relevant for both the work we do at Young Citizens; and for myself; as a foreigner trying to learn more about the impact of Brexit on the young people of the UK. The panel included seven young leaders from all over the UK; and was chaired by Dr. Andy Mycock from the University of Huddersfield. It featured discussion on the impact of Brexit on young people, how well young people understand what’s happening with Brexit; and the Votes at 16 movement.

The panel first discussed how the issue of Brexit created confusion and a lack of clarity for the future of the younger generation. One point that stood out was when Lara Spirit, co-president of Our Future, Our Choice; mentioned how the young generation will have to spend their time figuring out Brexit, which many of them couldn’t even vote for or against, instead of focusing on other issues facing their generation like climate change or the housing crisis.

More political education needed in schools

More panellists were brought in for a discussion on how well young people understand what is happening with Brexit. A common theme was the lack of political education in schools. Many young representatives spoke about the need for funding and accessibility of youth platforms and programs. In order to improve the knowledge of young people, there must be opportunities to learn about politics and democracy. Once young people have access to programs that support citizenship education, they can have a larger voice and be better heard by politicians. This will hopefully generate more policies that are made with everyone’s best interests in mind.

The final discussion of the night focused on voting age; and specifically the Votes at 16 movement. 62.5 percent of the audience at the debate agreed the voting age should be lowered to 16 for all elections in the UK. A young Scottish representative spoke about how he was able to vote at age 16 in his local elections, but was unable to vote in the referendum during the same year. It was as if he gained his right to vote and then lost it, all in the same year.

The conversation then turned to the relationship between dependency and voting rights. An audience member voiced that she believed 16 year-olds shouldn’t have voting rights because they are still “dependent;” and living with their family. A conversation ensued in which some panellists discussed how they had been independent since the age of 16, and just because someone lives at home doesn’t mean they are incapable of making informed decisions about voting – like how people in their mid-20s may be living at home, and have voting rights. It was great to see the different perspectives of these young leaders. Many of the panellists agreed that young people have a level of maturity that older people don’t understand at times, and that often leaves them feeling ignored or undervalued. Those in the debate who support Votes at 16 stated that in order to successfully engage young people in UK politics, there needs to be equally available political education for all youth.

This debate helped me reflect on the work Young Citizens does; and how that work addresses the concerns of young people across the UK. It was an inspiration to see these remarkable young leaders talk about issues that their generation will be facing for years to come. They are proof that schools must engage their students in conversations about democracy, law and economics. In order to build active citizens who are powerful advocates and leaders, young people must have access to programs that focus on citizenship education. As big political issues come up, such as Brexit, they can be confusing. It’s important that as these changes arise, young people continue to learn – and we will evolve our programs to meet those needs, like our Economic Experts in Schools program focusing on the impact of Brexit on the economy.

From an American perspective, it makes me wish citizenship education was available to me from a younger age. I wasn’t exposed to education about the American democratic system until I was 17 years old, the year before the 2016 presidential election. In the years since then, I have become much more politically active and informed. However, most of my peers don’t feel confident about their knowledge of politics. When elections come up, I encourage those around me at university to vote and educate themselves, but many of them are unsure where to turn for information on the candidates and issues at hand. This needs to change. Young people of both America and the UK deserve to be educated on their government, voting rights and other aspects of being an active citizen.

The younger generation is going to be the one to deal with the consequences of political decisions being made right now, so the need for active young citizens has never been stronger – especially in the era of Brexit.

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