Schooling in political community

CISRUL’s project on local schools began with our “Citizenship Education” forum in March 2013. Making “responsible citizens” is a core objective of the Curriculum for Excellence, which has been rolled out in schools across Scotland. Speakers at the forum noted, however, that the Curriculum for Excellence gives little emphasis to the political awareness of pupils, and also that teachers across Scotland are notoriously wary of “political” agendas in the classroom. The apolitical ethos of Scottish schooling may accentuate what education researchers have found across the world: pupils complain of feeling disenfranchised because they are unable to vote until they are 18.

Yet the voting age was lowered from 18 to 16 for the Scottish Independence Referendum to be held on 18 September 2014, and one goal of our research was to determine what impact this might have on 16- and 17-year old pupils’ attitudes to politics. To that end we conducted focus groups and interviews in a sample of local schools, including questions like “For those of you who will be eligible to vote in the Referendum, how confident do you feel about making the right decision?”

As is typical of CISRUL projects, though, we also have broader concerns, and the project is tied to our ongoing debates about “political community”.  For the purposes of the project, we understand “political” in terms relations of authority and especially how these are institutionalised (or stabilised); “political community” is a particular relation of authority – authority is exercised in name of some kind of community. The focus group questions include, therefore such broad questions as “Beyond your parents, who would you say has authority over you, and do you think it’s right that they have that authority?” Thus, we are concerned to:

  • construct a profile of the relations of authority in the lives of the pupils, both in and beyond school
  • determine to what extent pupils justified those relations of authority on the grounds they felt represented as members of community.

Our provisional findings are as follows:

  • Beyond parents, pupils associate rules and authority primarily with schools (before government, police and employers), at least a third feel they could at least potentially have a say in school rules, while several say that they owe it to teachers to obey the rules (vertical obligation) though often qualifying this with a fear of consequences if they do not follow the rules.
  • After schools (and family) pupils view government, police and employers as authorities in their lives, but don’t feel represented by MPs or MSPs or have much of a say in anything, although they do say rules outside school are more binding (while school is good training for learning to obey) and some feel obliged to others (vertical and horizontal) to obey rules and authority outside school.
  • About voting in Referendum, most agree that non-temporary residence in Scotland should make eligible and most intend to vote because they feel it will affect their (individual) futures, while in terms of age, only a few share critics’ fears that 16/17 year olds will be unduly influenced or uninformed and most feel confident of knowing what to vote, although many don’t yet feel sufficiently informed and look especially to schools to help.

The final conclusions are being published in a chapter in the forthcoming CISRUL volume Political Community: The Idea of the Self-Governing People.

For further information, please contact Trevor Stack

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