What lessons can we learn from Scotland’s decision to lower the voting age to 16? Malcolm Hill, Andrew Lockyer, George Head, and Craig McDonald draw on a schools-based study examining teacher and pupil opinion about the experience of preparing to vote in the 2014 referendum. They explain how the teaching of politics can prepare students for a second independence referendum debate, as well as what challenges may lie ahead based on the current political context.

The UK Government has traditionally been reluctant to hold referenda. But, under the premiership of David Cameron, three took place, with two having momentous implications for future UK internal and external relations. The first – on Scottish Independence in 2014 – seemed to have been successful from a government viewpoint, as the majority of those voting opted in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK. By contrast, the second referendum in 2016 on EU membership was lost by the government and its allies. In neither case were the majorities overwhelming and so the electorates remain divided on these issues.

Furthermore, the second result showed some sharp geographical divisions with over 60% of the Scottish electorate voting to stay in the EU. This has led the Scottish Parliament to support a call for a new referendum on Scottish independence within the next few years. The UK Government has ruled out an immediate new Sottish Referendum but acknowledged that one may be held once the UK has left the EU and, contrary to previous expectations, before a new generation is on the scene. The Northern Ireland responses to the EU Referendum have also called into question the fragile status quo there.

We want to consider how questions of the integrity of the UK and withdrawal from the EU interact with another important consideration – age.  Analysis of the EU vote showed that younger people were much more likely to favour staying in than older people. This fits with other evidence that the young tend to feel more European than those old enough to remember the times when Britain was outside the then European Economic Community.

Similarly it seems that the proportion of Scots who feel British has been declining. This may be attributed in part to the end of Empire, where many Scots took advantage of opportunities overseas and played significant military, economic, political and settlement roles. Resentment at Conservative governments based largely on English votes has influenced the growth in support for independence.

It was partly because it was assumed that younger Scots were more likely to favour independence that it was argued that the voting age for the 2014 referendum should be lowered. This proposal was accepted and for the first time in Britain 16- and 17-year-olds were given the franchise at a national level. It has since been confirmed that any future elections to the Scottish Parliament will have an electorate aged 16 upwards. This has opened up a new democratic fissure, since those aged 16-17 were not allowed to vote on the EU and are not able to vote in elections elsewhere in the UK. This discrepancy may well lead to pressure for the anomaly to be resolved. After all, young people will be affected for longest by decisions about national borders, international trade and movements of people.

We carried out a study in 2014, which included questions to school pupils in Scotland  (aged 15+) and teachers about preparation for the Referendum. Not surprisingly perhaps, we found that a majority of young people were in favour of being able to vote, with some being very enthusiastic about this, while more of the adults were against. Since then, adult opinion has shifted to become more favourable.

The presence of young voters in school poses issues about how teachers can best help students be prepared, yet avoid being perceived as biased or seeking to indoctrinate. It is a long-standing tenet of pedagogy that teachers should not present their personal viewpoints on controversial issues, especially those which are overtly ‘political’.  School guidance in 2014 supported education about political processes and issues but warned strongly against teachers showing political preferences.

By and large teachers successfully complied with management advice to avoid accusations of bias in 2014, but some regarded the requirements as unnecessarily constraining. Students in our study themselves largely wanted teachers to present both sides and thought this had been achieved, though many thought coverage of issues was inadequate. A small number of pupils said that teachers ought to be free to give their own views

It seems the next few years will pose greater challenges to schools in Scotland in preparing for a probable further referendum. In addition to the continuing issues which surrounded the 2014 referendum – matters of national identity, political allegiance and economic wellbeing – there will be controversies about the UK’s exit from the EU. In 2014 it was assumed that Scotland would remain in the EU whether it left the UK or not. Now it is unclear if Scotland would or should be allowed back in once it has been taken out ‘because of English votes’.

The question of the currency following possible independence (pound, euro or a new denomination) was contentious last time, but will be more complex. The wish to rejoin the EU could be contingent on joining the Euro Zone, while there is uncertainty about the economic prospects and future of the pound post-Brexit. In that context, it may be even harder for schools to present information in ways that achieve ‘balance’ and avoid public perceptions of bias.

The long-standing presumption that young people of school age are citizens in the making not yet ready to be politically active has been increasingly challenged, partly as a consequence of the Scottish Referendum experience. It remains to be seen whether this important matter will be lost sight of amidst the profound political and economic changes that are occurring.


Note: the above draws on the authors published work in Scottish Affairs.

About the Authors

Malcolm Hill is Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde and was for a number of years Director of the Glasgow Centre for the Child & Society.

Andrew Lockyer has taught politics for many years at Glasgow University and is currently the Stevenson Professor of Citizenship.

George Head is recently retired, after a long period in the Faculty of Education, University of Glasgow.

Craig McDonald has carried out several pieces of research at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde.

Image credit: stevepb, Pixabay/Public Domain.
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