VotesforSchools: How did it all begin?
How one woman began the "children's crusade"
Since 2016, VotesforSchools has won a range of awards, received millions of votes on issues from Brexit to climate change, and continued to give children and young people around the UK a voice on the issues that matter to them.
But where did it all begin? Cast your mind back to 2015: every day, Kate Harris would see first-hand how young people felt about politics. “If you talk to a lot of teenagers, they think that politics doesn’t affect them,” she said. “They’re scared of voting – it’s quite alien to them, it’s something that clever people or much older people do."
She knew attitudes needed to change if young people were going to become not only responsible and empowered citizens, but active voters too. "If we can get them voting on issues that are engaging to them and affecting them, then we can create the habits they then take into adulthood.”
Fast forward a few months, and Kate’s initial idea was fast taking shape. "The dream was to create a way to capture what young people think and feel about political issues and then use that data to influence change.”
From humble beginnings with a handful of engaged schools and just a few hundred votes each week, VotesforSchools has come a long way. Now, more than 350,000 children across over 850 Primary schools, Secondary schools and Colleges take part in a weekly nationwide debate, with tens of thousands of young people logging their votes and sharing their comments to ensure that their voices are heard.
By providing resources for teachers to discuss big contemporary questions with their school and college communities, Kate wanted to “embed a sense of democratic practice in children from the age of five”. This has certainly been a success, with votes coming in from all year groups across the UK since 2018, when lessons for voters aged 5-7 were introduced. In 2019, we also introduced assemblies and Home Information Sheets to our VotePacks to open up the conversation on a whole-school basis and even amongst families.
The results from our VoteTopics have garnered attention well beyond the school gates, too. Our weekly Data Reports – which collate the results based on gender, age, and region – are used to keep Governmental departments and NGOs up to date on the thoughts and feelings of children and young people. The result is consistent, quality feedback from people in positions of influence, as well as ongoing impact on a range of policies, White Papers, and newspaper reports. As a result, children and young people know that their views are making a difference, which was all part of the long-term mission.
Kate Harris is also keen to stress how VotesforSchools’ unique approach can – and does – benefit democracy itself. “Creating a generation of informed people who can ask questions and understand democracy could help the country move away from the polarised debate sparked by Brexit,” she says. “Ultimately, this could take us towards a more civilised, more nuanced type of politics.”
While us adults might not quite have nailed the “nuanced” approach, we remain hopeful that the next generation will take up the mantle and continue to emphasise the value in being informed, curious and heard.
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