National Democracy week starts on Monday 2nd July, 2018, the 90th anniversary of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act which gave women the same voting rights as men. It is also the 20th anniversary of devolution in Wales. Devolution has not however, rejuvenated democracy in Wales. ‘Missing Voices’, from the Electoral Reform Society Cymru (2017) report that people are frustrated with the political system, know very little about the responsibilities of the Welsh Government and generally feel disengaged from politics. This is even more serious amongst the under-25s where fewer that half voted compared to over 75% of those over 65 (ERSC, 2014). We think attention to participatory democracy in schools could put us on a different track and bring democracy alive in Wales.
We argue that the current educational system is unfair and broken. It began with the Education Reform Act (DES, 1989), introduced by the government of Margaret Thatcher and the meaning of what it means to be educated changed. Enthralled by Neoliberalism whose mantra is markets, management and performativity, the main purpose of education changed to the aim of improving the UK’s economic competitiveness. A prescriptive National Curriculum was introduced; local management of schools transferred power from the local authority to the school’s governing body and turned head teachers into managers and bursars. A national system of testing and inspection ensured schools competed with each other and ushered in an era of accountability as teachers were judged on their pupils’ performance on standardized tests.
Successful schools were judged by scores on high-stakes tests, which became the key means of differentiating one school from another. ‘Rising standards’ has become the mantra of all education secretaries of state regardless of political affiliation and is used to justify all policies and practices. The Neoliberal story promises that high scores on tests will lead to the ‘best’ jobs. ‘Best’ because they pay the most and confer the most prestige. To ensure the most capable (those best at sitting and passing tests) rise to the top, the system has to be competitive in very narrow parameters and those competing must be made to work very hard to achieve the dictated goals. Children and young people (CYP) quickly learn they are only as good as their last grade.
This Neoliberal system of education is a dominant force globally and structures opportunities for CYP. If they are not good at those things our academic system prioritizes then they will be beaten down and marginalized. The fallout includes the 1 in 10 young people who suffer from mental health problems today.
The current education system leaves many CYP without the things they need to achieve well-being and realise their potential. It is manipulated to benefit those who are good at taking tests; it undermines equality and causes problems as not everyone is supported to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. When children don’t experience success their well-being is undermined in all sorts of ways. And of those who do perform well on tests, many are left unfulfilled as they are channelled into jobs that are also dominated by targets and performativity and require long hours of work that leave little time for meaningful family life or any fulfilment outside work.
For us, creating a good education system means laying down educational tracks that enable children to get to their real needs rather than keeping them in a pathway whose only destination is failure. We are currently facing a system failure for many, but we can re-design the system. We need to rethink our understanding of the purpose of education and that brings us to the idea of the democratic school.
Democracy week is an opportunity for those of us who are passionate about young people’s democratic engagement to take stock and think about some key questions:
What is democratic education?
How can we encourage democratic practices in our schools?
Schools specifically designed to be democratic do exist and looking at how they work can help answer the first question. The vast majority of CYP however do not attend these schools so our focus is the second question. Here the European Democratic Education Community is doing important work that we can learn from. In particular the findings of the Hannam Report (2001) is encouraging. Hannam investigated schools that were committed to student participation and found positive impact on attendance and attainment and “enhanced self-esteem, motivation and willingness to ‘engage’ with learning” in such schools. The report tells us that schools in the UK who make the effort to promote student participation do make a difference to CYP.
Our mission at VocalEyes is to embed participatory democracy principles into the current system in Wales in the belief that it will make school life more meaningful and fulfilling for all children and help prepare them for democratic engagement in their communities.
Support for developing participatory approaches come from some of the core policies of the Welsh Government and we now provide an overview.
Democratic Possibilities in Wales
Unique in the UK, the Welsh Government has adopted the UNCRC (United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child) as a statutory obligation for all public bodies. Fundamental children’s rights’ principles are embedded within the policies and practices of all who work with and on behalf of children, especially our schools. This is an excellent starting point for participatory democracy.
The UNCRC confers on children the 3Ps of rights: rights for a flourishing childhood and rights against violence and harm from others (provision and protection).
The third and least understood ‘P’ is participation.
The UNCRC requires us to see children not just as the passive objects of adult socialization, but as actively involved in constructing the meaning of their lives for themselves.
To support this, the UNCRC sets out a set of participation rights that include the right to a voice, to exercise agency and negotiate meanings with others. These participation rights are based on the concept of dignity of the human person that we should find in a ‘rights respecting classroom’. Many local authorities in Wales have adopted the UNICEF programme to establish ‘rights-respecting-schools’. In Swansea, for example, all schools have achieved the Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA). The UNCRC has therefore signaled a major change in how adults are asked to view children – as full human beings rather than adults-in-the-making and this has profound implications for adult-child relationships and democracy in our schools.
In Wales, The Children and Young Persons (Wales) Rights Measure (WG 2011) ensures the Welsh Government puts the UNCRC as the basis of all its work across government. An independent Children’s Rights Commissioner for Wales was established in 2001 to safeguard and promote the rights and welfare of children. ‘Rights to Action’ (2004) sets out policies framed in terms of specific outcomes for children that can be mapped onto articles of the UNCRC.
Despite this legislative and policy framework, a rights perspective within policy development still has a long way to go. It is likely to be a gradual, incremental and in some respects contested process that is more readily achieved in some contexts than others. Working out how children’s freedom of expression (an important component of the UNCRC) can be achieved in our schools is an important task. Children and Young People should have opportunities to influence what goes on in their schools and colleges if they are to fully exercise their participation rights.
To emphasis this, the Children’s Rights Commissioner in Wales identified Article 12 of the UNCRC as key to implementing participation rights:
Children and young people have the right to have their say and their views to be considered when adults are making decisions that affect them.
CYP are seen to be the best arbiters of their own experiences and we must ensure we listen to them and act on their concerns to promote their well-being and develop their democratic skills.
To further support participation rights the Welsh Government requires all schools to establish a school’s council to make sure pupil voice is included in the development of school procedures and policies.
Since devolution much has been made of the role of education to promote Welsh identity and civic identity and yet numerous initiatives have failed to promote basic political literacy. Whilst knowing about the Welsh system of government is important, what are more important in the light of the UNCRC are mechanisms to support CYP’s participation rights. This is the area we have been working on and want to share in Democracy Week.
Supporting Participation Rights
Working together, VocalEyes and Dialogue Exchange seek to support CYP more holistically, not only to promote democratic participation in schools, but to go further and build bridges across communities to enable CYP to contribute to societal development. We agree with Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations when he said:
Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation.
Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace.
If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished.
Let us ensure that all young people have every opportunity to participate fully in the lives of their societies.
Our Neoliberal education system poses barriers to CYP’s participation and influence in schools, local communities and national political institutions. However, our experience using the VocalEyes participatory democracy platform and a Community of Enquiry approach to face-to-face dialogue indicates CYP’s deep commitment to the world and their capacity to put forward ideas for action. Whilst they are more interested in national and international issues than specifically Welsh ones, this probably reflects the sources of their information which comes mainly from social media, their families and the worldwide web. We have found that CYP care about stewardship of the environment; they want sustainable ecological systems.
VocalEyes participatory democracy platform being used in Grange Primary School
Welsh Youth Parliament
The Welsh Government’s plans for a Welsh Youth Parliament (WYP) to work in parallel with the Welsh Assembly also comes to fruition this year. All 11-16 year olds are eligible to put themselves forward as youth parliament representatives. The job of the elected members of the WYP will be to:
- Raise awareness of and debate issues raised by young people within the Assembly’s devolved powers;
- Listen to young people in Wales and represent their views;
- Decide and lead on work important to them;
- Increase, help and support CYP to understand how the National Assembly for Wales and the WYP works;
- Contribute to the work of the National Assembly for Wales and the WYP Committees;
- Meet together as a WYP three times over the two year term;
- Meet together at regional level and at engagement events every 2-3 months.
The plans for the WYP demonstrate government’s genuine commitment to involving youth from 11-16 in democratic decision-making. However, there is a danger it could become a talking shop for a minority if the young people don’t have an opportunity to participate meaningfully so that their participation does make a difference.
In addition, the proposals include giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote in council elections under powers transferred to the National Assembly for Wales under the Wales Act. This emphasizes the importance of CYP getting involved in local politics and elections by getting to know who their local councilors in their geographic wards are and what they do.
Representative Democracy is not Enough
Important though the Youth Parliament and plans for voting in council elections are, democracy in our vision is much more than a vote. A vote is necessary, but it is not sufficient. We need different ways of thinking about democracy and participation and we think that should start in schools. CYP need to have greater agency over their lives in education and an opportunity to think more critically about the things that affect them. Our children are growing up at a time of major species extinction, extensive pollution, catastrophic resource depletion and an inexorable rise in levels of C02 that amounts to a planetary emergency that must be addressed.
The recent screening of “Blue Planet II” has seen an upsurge in CYP’s understanding of and interest in the environmental crisis and many of them have responded by calling for plastic-free schools. Whilst it is easy to express a wish to ban plastics, the complexity of the issues calls for more education and schools must rise to this challenge. When CYP prioritize action over plastics they need the opportunity to develop genuine understanding of the magnitude of the problem and to identify the steps they can take for change in their own contexts – more on this later. Our approach seeks to support participatory democracy in action.
Participatory Democracy in Action
VocalEyes is a participatory democracy platform through which all CYP in a school are invited to propose ideas for action, rate and comment on each other’s ideas and identify priorities for school improvement. Introducing the platform in Cardiff schools as part of the UNICEF Child-Friendly-City initiative, CYP were asked to suggest ideas for making the city more child-friendly. Priorities emerging include addressing homelessness, increasing understanding between those from different communities, tackling poverty in the city, reducing plastic use and addressing mental health issues among young people. This is an indication of the responsible attitude CYP show when asked for their opinion and their concern that everyone should have the chance to live a meaningful, fulfilling life.
A key barrier to the development of democratic schools is scepticism on the part of adults that CYP are capable of making reasonable decisions. Our experience suggests such scepticism is not born out in practice as the CYP in Cardiff demonstrate. When trusted to take responsibility for decision-making in the school the outcomes are eminently reasonable. The CYP of Cardiff have spoken and it is now incumbent on the adults to take their ideas seriously if we are to convince them that democracy works. We need action to follow the words and as an example of this we turn to Swansea.
A case study of VocalEyes in Glyncollen Primary School in Swansea saw the CYP identifying reducing plastic as a top priority for their school. The teachers agreed this called for more research and classes embarked on a journey to understand the issues and to propose specific actions. The Year 6 class investigated the use of plastic in the school and began asking questions about the provision of small plastic bottles of free milk and plastic straws for all children in the Foundation Phase (aged 4-7).
Worrying about this they did some mathematical calculations based on numbers of schools in Swansea and estimated numbers of children in the Foundation Phase to come up with the staggering estimate of 5,200,000 plastic bottles and straws a week being thrown away in Swansea alone.
In light of their findings they have suggested a solution to reduce plastic use and have written to the council to ask if the current 200ml bottles could be replaced with 8 litre bottles that could be administered by teachers. Having been told that free milk is a Welsh government directive and not the responsibility of the local council they are turning their attention towards Assembly Members to hold them to account. They have pointed out that the practice of supplying so many plastic bottles seems to contradict the Welsh Government’s flagship policy on Education for Global Citizenship and Sustainability.
This process of democracy in action has alerted the children to technocratic models of decision-making that threatens to put a break on the changes they wish to make – important lessons for young democrats to learn. But they are not deterred; with the support of the school they are empowered to fight for changes to the system.
Once the children using VocalEyes have identified and prioritised ideas for action they engage in deliberation together using Philosophy for Children’s Community of Enquiry approach. Teachers trained by Dialogue Exchange in this method of democratic dialogue know how to help CYP respectfully explore different viewpoints and be willing to learn from each other as they discuss the changes the CYP have prioritised and how to take actions forward.
This process comes under the umbrella of deliberative democracy. ‘Deliberation’ comes from Latin and means ‘to weigh up or to consider well’. An enquiry approach can help CYP look to the future and encourages learning and reflection. The aim is to promote consensus and compromise through dialogue rather than the more adversarial style of debate they witness in the houses of parliament and on the media.
Let us sum up how our approach to democracy as a deliberative system can work:
A school signs up to VocalEyes, and through the platform the CYP suggest ideas for action that are rated, debated and prioritized by all children in the school.
Some of the ideas are taken to a face-to-face deliberative stage using a Community of Enquiry approach.
Ideas that require more research are delegated to a representative group, a class in the school or even undertaken by the whole school.
Following research, ideas for action are re-presented to the school body through VocalEyes or through the school council taken directly to those with the power to enact change.
In Glyncollen the students have been through the research and dialogue process and as well as wanting government to change how milk is provided, they have identified the replacing of plastic straws with stainless steel ones as a priority for change. The next stage is provision of a democracy training day for the Eco-warrior group in the school that will include training in crowd-funding to raise money to buy the stainless steel straws. An event to present their findings to parents and other stakeholders in the school will kick-start the fund raising process. Success will mean that plastic straws will no longer be used in the school and these young citizens will have succeeded in taking on the complex and challenging social problem of dealing with plastic in their own school and at the same time continuing to lobby the politicians to act on the plastic milk bottles.
This approach to democracy as a deliberative system brings together those who want change with those who hold the power to make change. When they work in this way, the CYP get used to responding to problems they have themselves identified by taking action and by learning how to hold accountable the adults who hold power and they feel empowered by it. This is democracy that goes way beyond the representative democracy of the ballot box.
We believe that CYP who regularly engage in participatory and deliberative democracy of this kind will be well prepared to ask and answer questions about what sort of society they want to live in and how they wish to be governed and in the process gain a much richer and more complex understanding of democracy.
Glyncollen Primary is one example of schools we work with where authority and power are shared between all stakeholders in the school. Where adults and children both want to create meaningful and fulfilling lives together. Rights-Respecting-Schools should be ones where children know they have a voice and believe their voice will be listened to. Such schools have already embedded a variety of democratic processes in their practices so the CYP have the opportunity to learn what is involved in taking good decisions.
To work in this way takes a certain kind of leadership and commitment to democracy and power sharing which is not yet a feature of all schools. However, when the school ensures everyone can participate in the democratic process, all members of the school can feel part of the community and able to influence decision-making and policies.
Changing the story
The stories we construct about schools depend on what we can imagine. Our current stories position CYP as less important than the adults when it comes to planning and carrying out their education. The young are positioned as less competent because they haven’t completed the journey to that magic age of 18 when the right to participate in democracy is conferred. That is about to change in Wales, a new story that includes a Youth Parliament is welcome, but this along is unlikely to be enough to change children’s current feelings of disempowerment.
It will need schools to embrace participatory practices and this will be a hard job against the dominant narrative of Neoliberalism. However, we know that our current system was designed by people and therefore can be re-designed. We just need the will to do it. It is possible to change tracks and go in a different direction.
Priorities for school improvement identified by CYP using VocalEyes frequently include wishing to be involved in teaching lessons. Young people want more say in what they learn and how they learn it and that is an important challenge to schools working under Neoliberalism and a national curriculum. In fact child-led learning, the idea that children are capable of defining their own learning pathways and have a right to do so is central to the democratic school movement and is endorsed by the Donaldson Report (2015) into the future of education in Wales.
Donaldson calls for teaching and learning approaches to be less constrained by detailed prescription and narrow performance measures that challenges the accountability culture of Neoliberalism.
CYP’s right to participate is clearly embedded within the principles of Donaldson’s suggestions for curriculum reform. The enthusiasm of the children in Glyncollen for investigating plastics is an example of the power of child-led learning to make school meaningful for all.
The ideas discussed here are not new, what are new are the opportunities to develop participatory democracy offered by a digital platform such as that developed by VocalEyes. The Community of Enquiry approach that supports the platform has its roots in the work of John Dewey, America’s foremost education philosopher. Dewey (2012) claimed that CYP learn best through experience and that democracy
“cannot go forward unless the intelligence of the mass of people is educated to understand the social realities of their own time”.
The CYP we work with are encouraged to think for themselves as they collaborate and deliberate with one another. The irony is that a whole raft of research concludes that this approach not only prepares CYP for life in a democracy but also contributes to the achievement of higher test scores.
From School to Community
The extended goal of VocalEyes is to link CYP and their parents to their geographic wards. This happens automatically when they sign into the school’s VocalEyes platform. In this way the CYP find out whom their local councillors are, how local democracy works and have the chance to contribute to identifying priorities for their own geographic area. The platform therefore introduces them to frameworks of local accountability and shows them that as users of public services they should have a say in how they are organised, managed and funded. This will help build new relationships between local councillors and their constituents to genuinely improve the way we do democracy in Wales.
National Democracy Week provides an opportunity for us all to get involved to deliberate on how we can promote democracy in our schools and local communities. Participatory democracy has the potential to build community both in and outside the school, to build cooperation and sharing to create something better and get everyone where they need to go. Let’s get on with making the vision of Donaldson (2015) a reality:
Our children and young people need to be rooted in their own cultures and to have a strong sense of identity as citizens of Wales, the United Kingdom, Europe and the wider world. Engaged citizenship requires the kind of understanding of democracy, human rights, interdependence, sustainability and social justice that should inform their personal views and sense of commitment. Children and young people need an ability to deal with difficult and contested ethical issues such as those that can arise from developments in science and digital technologies. Active citizenship requires the confidence and resilience that underpin the ability to exert influence and participate in vigorous debate. That confidence should be built on a strong base of knowledge and respect for evidence.
Dewey, J. (2012) Democracy and Education. Simon and Brown (orig. pub 1916). Donaldson, G. (2015) Successful Futures: Independent Reivew of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales. Dera.ioe.ac.uk/22165/2/150225-succesful-futures-en-Welsh
Department of Education and Schools (1988) Education Reform Act. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1988/40/contents
Electoral Reform Society Cymru (2017) Missing Voices. Available at: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/hearing-from-missing-voices-confusion-frustration-and-hope-in-welsh-politics/
Electoral Reform Society Cymru (2014) Welsh Power Report II: the Power and Voice of young people in Wales. Available at: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Young-People-in-Wales-welsh-power-report.pdf
Hannam, D. (2001) A pilot study to evaluate the impact of the student participation aspects of the citizenship order on standards of education in secondary schools. Report to the DfEE.
Welsh Government (2011) Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Rights Measure. Available at: www.legislation.gov.uk/mwa/2011/2/contentsrights to action
Welsh Government (2004) Children and Young People: Rights to Action Available at: http://www.assembly.wales/Committee%20Documents/HSS(2)-02-04%20Paper%201%20%20Children%20and%20Young%20People%20Rights%20to%20Action-04022004-14558/n0000000000000000000000000016990-English.pdf