Melanie Onn: Let’s harness the passion of children to help change the world



Kids care. We should harness that. Last year one of my local schools produced a film that reached the finals of a national competition. The child film makers asked other children what they liked about their town, what they enjoyed, what they thought was good. The children gave great answers. They liked their school, enjoyed the open spaces, clubs and sports, shops and McDonalds. Then they were asked what they thought could be better.

They said they wanted more play times, didn’t like bullies, wanted people to pick up litter to keep the area clean and tidy and give people sleeping on the streets somewhere to live.

That is living, breathing politics right there. Local and national.

I played a game with another school. I asked them to tell what they thought was bad, wrong or important in the world. Again great answers, people not being nice to each other, cruelty to animals, global warming, and children in other countries not being able to school, have enough food or get presents.

To help with the lesson in democracy after a show of hands for the top four priorities we had proposers of each issue stand up and say why that particular issue was important to them and why everyone should support it. The proposers (the “politicians”) went to a corner of the hall and the remaining children (the “voters”) chose a corner to show which idea they felt most strongly about and would be at the top of our imaginary agenda. To be honest, that bit is not entirely true. The “voters” ran around like flies bumping into each other before checking where their friends were going and seeing if they liked the person whose corner they were heading to.

Not remotely scientific but interesting and probably quite accurate reflections of human behaviour more generally.

Except that in the adult world more and more political parties are finding that the issues in the corner of the room are not enough to bring the voters buzzing over to polling stations. An exception to that has obviously been the EU referendum where the binary choice of remain or leave was a more attractive proposition, a real opportunity to make their voice heard on a single issue. A menu of issues – that tinker around the edges of current policy or bear no resemblance to the lives of voters’ concerns – is creating a system where the very legitimacy of Government is being called into question.

So how, short of having a referendum on every vote going before Parliament (which negates its entire purpose) do we impress on people that their vote counts, that politicians listen and that sense of remoteness can be overcome? In short, how do we keep them interested in politics and being active participants in our democracy?

Those issues that the children identified are equally as relevant to adults. Councillors up and down the land will tell us that it is fly-tipping, dog mess, refuse collection, street lighting, trees and pot holes that frequently top the list of concerns raised with them. But delve deeper and ask people if they care about animal welfare, domestic and international poverty, anti-social behaviour and the answer is more than likely to be yes. But they don’t feel connected enough to the elitism of politics to feel that those in power will take steps to improve those issues.

Creating a more participatory system from a young age, demonstrating how change can happen and taking kids through our current systems processes could connect people much more closely to the mechanisms of politics.

I have been working with a group of schools on the concept of a Schools Parliament. The idea is to go beyond the usual school council kept within the confines of what schools can do to make children’s experiences there better. The aim is to create a collection of school representatives in the local area who will choose topics that matter to them, perhaps about their local area but perhaps about issues that affect them or concern them and enable them to campaign to effect real change. It is a small step in teaching how their world can be changed through effective campaigning and lobbying. It is non-party political but in keeping with the concept of community campaigning.

Before the Parliament could meet they would have to undergo election campaigns; create a manifesto that through research and questioning of their classmates would guide them to plan for what they would like to focus on; a taste of the experience of running a campaign either within their entire schools or across schools.

Once elected they would have to learn to work together to decide which of their priorities they will follow. If it is not something that they as an individual campaigned on, they might have to explain it to their electorate.

The priorities could be anything, it could be tackling obesity in children or road speeds around parks and schools. Local or national. Two schools have written to me about wild animals in circuses. If this were to be the Parliament’s topic for their term of office they would have to research this issue. They would have to generate support from their electorate to back their campaign using their research. They would have to learn about our national Parliamentary system to find out who they need to approach both in Government and amongst individuals who might support their campaign.

Looking at other recent campaigns that have made the headlines but also created a real buzz and effected change like the WASPI women, a sugar tax or discard bans in fishing, seeing how groups like Greenpeace, Amnesty International or trade unions seek to influence change in policy would give greater awareness of the competing organisations taking up concerns. It might also give them the sense that their voices, collectively, as citizens of the future could be equally as powerful.

Melanie Onn is part of the Fabian Society advisory panel which is currently writing a new charter for democratic reform which will be launched in September.

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