Earlier this month I spoke at the Storymakers International Conference, jointly organised by the Leeds Beckett University’s Carnegie School of Education and the OECD as part of the Future of Education and Skills 2030 programme. Also invited was Fayiza Islam, my fellow Member of the Votes at 16 Social Action Group, Youth Parliament, and the Debate Lead at last year’s House of Commons sitting.
The conference began with a keynote panel discussing the Youth Parliament’s iteration of a Curriculum for Life: modern, accessible, and of enduring value. My gratitude goes to Fayiza for holding down the fort in my absence. Her powerful opening speech was unanimously lauded. Owing to the ever-unpredictable nature of English transport, I managed to scramble to Weetwood Hall by midday.
Two milestones were fresh in our minds while preparing for the day: the case we made for Education and Health during the UK Youth Parliament annual debate at the House of Commons in November 2022, and the launch of the Votes at 16 Manifesto in March 2023. In both instances groups of driven, opinionated teenagers gathered to put forward arguments around decisive issues, with education and young people’s civic and political literacy as important priorities.
Consider the annual debate: were the MPs whose benches we occupied for the afternoon roused by our call to action? Succinctly put, I can’t say. If you’re a young person who’s dipped your toes in any kind of a political campaign and lent it your credence, it’s likely that your presence as a young person is valued higher than the actual changes you wish to set in motion. It can be difficult to keep at it and hold fast to your convictions when you experience recurrent false successes like these. But the teachers who came together in Leeds that day, from Berlin to Cambridge and Iceland, were daring enough to guide their young students to be outspoken and explicitly political.
When I was introduced to the “The Plastic Monster” workshop led by Daniel Ingram-Brown, I had anticipated a dated PowerPoint whose delivery hinges on the typical handful of eco-platitudes (“Go green!”). This was not the case. Inside an otherwise non-descript room were a dozen teachers huddled over some disarranged chairs, soberly pinching their noses with one hand and miming passing around invisible objects in another. Without missing a beat, the instructor ushered me into the group – which I later discovered was a makeshift town hall for a local ecological crisis – as we were instantly transported aboard a ship roaming the English Channel and, with ropes anchoring us to the hull, commanded to dive for evidence of plastic waste.
What ensued was revelatory. Gone was the default image of buttoned-up scholars who live in their classrooms: these were big kids on all fours, leaping, crawling, belly-flopping across the modest space, and screaming in pure euphoria when they claimed to have found a Barbie with the head bitten off or a monster truck tire. I had been travelling for some time that day; for a split second, I thought that maybe the exhaust fumes had really put me out of it.
It was not until we were gathered again in that nebulous circle and back in our bodies that things became clear to me. The speaker led a discussion on the origins of each item of trash we had “uncovered” – they could all be traced back to the main factory of our town. He announced that, from the outset, some ways of combating this present threat had simply not been within our power. Did this mean we were helpless in the scheme of things? Not at all. With a welcome break from phraseology and the guidance of a teacher, we came up with solutions that were for once not appropriated from the state-approved rulebook of permissible trivia. In teaching climate politics, this approach was successful as it did not resort to strong-arming a more palatable version of an “adult’s issue”, which quite often comes from an underestimation of young people’s capacities. Students would instead be eased in and led to their own answers.
I found myself taken aback upon seeing earnest politics taught to earnest young children, whose world is illustrated to them in dots and squiggles and playful reverie yet somewhat grounded in our common reality. Their teachers’ big ideas, however whimsical or parable-centric, are trialled every day in the classroom, modified, then renewed; not to sow the seeds of some homogenous creed, but to lead our democracy’s newest cohorts in considering their power and using it well from the beginning. These pupils will grow to be different, or “bothered”, as one speaker described.
I got a strong sense that the fruit of a budding notion, that operable civic skills should be part of every child’s development, had ripened and already been reaped. There’s a brand new generation learning to wield knowledge as capital. They will know how to have opinions on things because they will have been taught where to start.
Yet civic education still reflects the injustices of wider society. This is both due to the failures of our leading institutions and a trickle-down approach which intentionally keeps political literacy out of the hands of marginalised and less wealthy people and communities.
Is this why we’re so afraid of politics in schools? There is not a single socially contested issue without at least a bit of a grime at its source, whether greed or mismanagement, as if each issue was devised in a way to work in the interest of one party or group over another. Think of women’s suffrage in Britain. Enfranchisement of the female population was not denied by chance; the exclusion of each distinct social group was just as much of a choice as its inverse. The same goes for Votes at 16. If we commit to making political education as accessible as possible, the benefit delivered to young people across all social groups will be a positive lesson in and of itself. I hope that we can learn from efforts to expand liberty and literacy rather than the lack thereof.
Finally, if you’ve ever wanted to see your hypothesis go beyond a talking point, visit a working teacher. I met some of the best that Saturday; they seem to care much more than those who bear a lot more titles and a lot less heart. Thanks to them, I still believe in a future that treasures its youth.
As the day came to an end, I had the honour of concluding the conference. I gave an impromptu tribute to the power of creative pedagogy, and was genuinely moved by the audience’s reaction to receiving a few words of well-deserved gratitude. Special thanks to Dr Lisa Stephenson, Lecturer at Leeds Beckett’s School of Education, for bringing us on board and championing a new kind of learning; the same goes for Project Coordinator Ana Sanches de Arede, whose diligence was the key to a fantastic experience.