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Votes at 16 and decent citizenship education could create a politically aware generation

BearFotos/Shutterstock

Keir Starmer has pledged that a Labour government would introduce voting for 16- and 17-year-olds in Westminster elections.

Rishi Sunak has claimed that votes at 16 is simply a tactic to shore up future support for Labour, given that younger people are less likely to vote Conservative.

But research conducted in countries where young people already vote at this age suggests that the move would actually be beneficial for overall democratic engagement in the UK. It would be even more powerful if it was paired with lessons at school on citizenship and political involvement.


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Sceptics tend to worry that young people lack the maturity to participate in elections. However, there is significant positive evidence of the capacities of young people in these countries and of the benefits of votes at 16.

Several countries, including Austria, Argentina and Malta, have lowered the voting age to 16 for national elections. Some other countries, such as Scotland and Wales in the UK and some states in Germany, allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local or regional elections. Research in these places allows us to understand more about the impact of introducing votes at 16.

In particular, evidence shows that 16- and 17-year-olds have similar levels of motivation to participate in politics as older age groups, and are able to select candidates whose policies most align with the teenagers’ own standpoints. Their youth does not mean that they are less able to make reasoned political decisions.

There is also evidence that 16- and 17-year-olds are actually more likely to vote than 18- to 24-year-olds when their schools provide them with appropriate political information and help engage them with voting. This can include discussing key issues and ensuring young people have information about the process for voter registration, the powers and duties of those being elected and the policy differences between candidates and parties.

What’s more, if high turnout rates can be achieved among 16- and 17-year-olds this should then bode well for their future levels of turnout. There is evidence that if voters cast their ballot in one of the first elections they are eligible to, they are more likely to continue to do so in future.

Informed and involved

A key way to encourage 16-year-olds to engage with elections – and set them on the path to lifelong political engagement – is through citizenship education. Evidence from the UK and internationally has shown the positive impact that well-delivered citizenship education can have on students.

For example, a research study conducted in 28 countries suggested that classroom discussion of political issues increases civic knowledge. Subsequently, that increase in civic knowledge make future political participation more likely.

Research carried out in the UK has found that citizenship education leads to increases in political knowledge and political participation. It also increases young people’s confidence in their ability to act in the political realm, and their belief in the value of the political system and their ability to effect change.

UK citizenship education

Citizenship education was introduced in secondary schools in England by Labour in 2002. It was intended to help young people understand political concepts and promote civic and political participation. Although citizenship education has been retained in the national curriculum by subsequent governments, it is not really up to scratch.

Under the Conservatives it has been slimmed down and its focus shifted towards constitutional history and financial literacy. A greater emphasis has been placed on voluntary work. In addition, academies and free schools have been given the freedom to opt out of following the national curriculum.

What is needed now is a more comprehensive citizenship curriculum in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It should be designed to prepare 16- and 17-year-olds to vote and to engage confidently in other forms of political action.

Teenagers raising hands in class
Citizenship education should teach young people why their vote matters. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

To be effective, this citizenship education should be taught to all secondary school students. It needs to be underpinned by a commitment from the government and schools to get young people involved in politics. It should equip them for critical and informed political thinking, so they possess knowledge about the political system and how to engage in political activities.

Media literacy is also important. Young people need to be able to recognise problems associated with fake news and conspiracy theories in society.

Activities such as mock elections and classroom debates would help young people hone their political understanding and reasoning skills. Crucially, citizenship education should show young people that they can make a difference.

Together, the introduction of votes at 16 and improved citizenship lessons in UK schools would provide young people with a greater voice in politics. It would allow them to confidently play a bigger role in helping society address significant contemporary problems.

The Conversation

This article is based on the authors' forthcoming book Votes at 16: Empowering Young People and Revitalising Democracy in Britain, which will be published by Bloomsbury.

Lee Jerome does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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