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How to talk about politics with kids. It needs to happen at school

  • Young people react intuitively to inequality and unfairness - it’s something adults could learn from, and societies can benefit from.

  • But there is often a culture of censorship where some opinions seem acceptable and others aren’t.

  • Schools should provide a safe space for opinions to flourish – but teachers need more training and a better framework to facilitate debate.

From Joan of Arc to Greta Thurnberg, young people have always been key to political change. Their free-thinking nature and neuroplasticity means they are predisposed to imagine a different world, and even work towards creating it.

Young people react intuitively to inequality and unfairness - it’s something adults could learn from, and societies can benefit from. This will be indispensable post-pandemic as we navigate the recovery.

There are many examples of future changemakers and young political disruptors, from the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community to the rebel Gen Zs who disrupted a presidential rally.

Young activists spur a sense of agency

Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are two high profile young grassroots activists who have spurred a sense of agency amongst the young. One U.S study found that those who were more familiar with Greta’s work were more likely to feel confident that they can take action to mitigate climate change.

Generation Z is the most ethnically diverse, digital-savvy, and open generation ever, with progressive views, openness to sexuality and gender. They’re more ethics-focused, and they’re on track to be the most-educated generation we’ve ever had.

But the education system that serves them is caught between protecting children from excessive, dangerous or extremist political views on the one hand, and nurturing their idealism on the other. Often teachers err on the side of caution and shut down debate.

Cancel culture

The context is that outside of schools, there is a culture of censorship where some opinions seem acceptable but others aren’t. Social media can make matters worse by perpetuating cancel culture and echo chambers. This environment is challenging for adults to navigate the truth, let alone children and young people.

Recently, there has been a spate of school pupils being disciplined or even excluded for expressing political opinions, particularly with regard to contested histories. Educators are being advised to refrain from certain topics and remain impartial – but this tends to overlook the fact that students have opinions – and that they should be able to explore them within the safe space of their school.

The risk of excluding this kind of debate at school is that children have one-dimensional, tone-deaf and offensive ways of thinking. Or at the other extreme, become completely apathetic.

When I was a headteacher I never dreamed of stopping my pupils having opinions – and I tried to make sure their views were not offensive or dangerous. But this shouldn’t be left to individual teachers to make a judgement call. It should be national and intra-governmental policy, with common standards and a framework in place for teachers to work within.

School children will always be political. If we teach youngsters to suppress their nascent political beliefs, and that school is not a natural place for healthy, holistic discussions, this not only leaves them vulnerable to radicalization by charismatic figures outside school but also strips them of their ability to think autonomously and deprives society of future political leaders.

Democracy depends on it

We must be more committed to championing the ideas, thoughts, and beliefs that can change the world. We need more Gretas, Malalas and Global Shapers. And we need to reverse the trend where the younger you are, the less likely you are to vote. A democracy is not a democracy if it is only for the over 40s.

Nurturing this potential starts with teachers, who need more training and a better framework to encourage healthy political opinion. Currently, there is a sense that educators themselves are either censored or limited in what they can advocate. If instead of negative reinforcement and just focusing on how to spot the signs of political radicalization, we spent more effort encouraging healthy debate and offering guidance, we would have politically aware pupils who could make well-rounded decisions into adult life.

This framework should foster passion and excitement, rather than fear. If charisma can radicalize youngsters, it can de-radicalize and healthily politicize them too.

It should empower educators to introduce political issues responsibly, where children are encouraged to have all the facts, read credible sources, and avoid reacting to or spreading misinformation. This will feed their curiosity and equip them with the ability to think for themselves, and responsibly navigate their thoughts and beliefs.

But to do that, we need to let them have uncomfortable conversations, not silence them.


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