Wednesday 22-06-2016 - 13:41
Ok, I am not having a party (I just have a lot of puns for you), but the government is letting us vote on whether or not we want to stay in the European Union. In a few days, eligible British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens will be able to vote in one of the most important referendum events of our times to decide whether or not we stay in the European Union.
Sadly, however, a group of young people who should have been invited to vote have not. Young people aged between 16-17 years old are currently not eligible to vote in this coming referendum. This, despite the fact that young people have shown an appetite for engaging with their political and democratic structures.
Many politicians like to make us believe that 16-17 years olds are too young to vote. Sure they can join the army, drive a car and in some cases get married but voting, that appears to be a step too far for our current government. In December last year, the government blocked plans to let 16 and 17-year-olds vote in the UK's EU membership referendum – denying them a say in a decision that will have a phenomenal impact on that. NUS research on why young people are disengaged from our democratic processes showed that rather than being apathetic, young people lacked appropriate information about many aspects of our democratic and political structures.
The current state of citizenship education in schools is one that can be improved. Citizenship education is not a statutory subject in our schools and as such, young people are currently not provided with the opportunity to understand and better engage with their civic and democratic rights. Even when citizenship education is taught in our schools, the scope of the subject is narrow and often fails to fully engage and inform young people. The importance of citizenship education has been reinforced by a recent recommendation by the United Nations to the UK to both enhance citizenship education in schools and lower the current voting age to include 16-17 year olds.
Despite the shortfalls in our education system, plenty of evidence exists to prove that young people including 16-17 year olds are very much interested in exercising their democratic and civic rights. In the 2014 Scottish referendum, an astounding 75 per cent of 16 to 17 year olds turned out to vote and reports from the Electoral Commission showed that 97 per cent of those young people said they would vote again in the future. It is clear that we young people want to participate but something seems to be going wrong.
The key question for us is why would the government not want young people including 16-17 year olds to engage with our democratic structures? Many young people are voting to stay in the EU and NUS conference, the largest student democratic event in the world, this and last year passed policy to affirm this position.
As young people, we cannot take the threats to our democratic rights lightly, we need to organise and campaign for our rights as citizens. We need to be able to participate in the processes that affect not only our education but our futures. This is why I encourage all of those who are eligible and registered to vote to go out on Thursday 23 June and vote to have your voice heard.
Our work should not stop with the EU referendum, but instead we should work to ensure all young people are provided with both the information and opportunity to participate in our democracy. Over the next year, I will be campaigning and lobbying the government to lower the voting age to include 16-17 year olds. I will also be working with student unions, Government and other stakeholders to improve voter registration and mitigate the risks associated with individual electoral enrolment.
Last but not least, the role of education cannot be overlooked. We as young people need our education systems to provide the opportunity for us to learn about the political process and our political rights. We need our schools to proactively champion and implement a robust, inclusive and global citizenship curriculum. For this to happen we need the government to make citizenship education a well-funded and statutory subject for all schools in the United Kingdom.