Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.
At Kirklees Council we’re working with our citizens, councillors, schools and partner organisations to grow a stronger local democracy, from the ground up. Based on the landmark work of the Kirklees Democracy Commission, we’re developing an environment and a culture that nurtures people’s interest in local democracy and gives each of us a stake in our local place. In redesigning our local democracy for the future, we are strongly aware of the responsibility that we have to our young citizens.
Our Democracy Friendly Schools programme is a key part of our work to grow the confident active citizens of the future. We’re currently working with two pilot high schools (a mainstream school and a pupil referral unit) to develop “trainer the trainer” local democracy training and resources, which will support key members of staff in each school. Every young person who completes the training will become a Kirklees Youth Councillor. We’re also working with primary schools to test out activities for teaching about democracy, and offering all participating schools ongoing support and recognition.
Our aspiration to help every local school to be Democracy Friendly is based on Kirklees Youth Council’s learning from over 1,700 children and young people in Kirklees, and the subsequent recommendations of our Young Commissioners. The young participants talked about having a voice, getting involved in community life, and how we can help them to grow the skills, confidence and connections they want, in the way that they want. Only 15% of the young citizens we heard from said that they’re currently being taught everything they need to know about democracy in school.
We have found that young people who have been taught something about politics or democracy are more likely to believe they know about the decisions that affect them, and are also more likely to feel that they can express their opinions. Our evidence shows that democratic education clearly makes a difference, and that the place where young people feel safest having a voice is in school. But we also know that teachers often lack the confidence to talk about democracy, for fear of influencing young people’s political views. By supporting staff in our schools, we can change this.
If there’s one thing that we need to help each other to understand, it’s that democracy starts with the citizen. Democracy happens where you are. For us, learning about local democracy means learning about where you live, knowing how to connect with your councillors, feeling confident to share your views, and being able to work with others to get things done in your local place. Our kind of democracy is not something that happens far away in Westminster or long ago in ancient Greece. It’s something that we’re part of everyday and which we carry with us. Democracy is happening right here and right now. We can only learn about it by doing it.
By being active citizens in our local places, we are each a part of our local democracy. By working together to make things happen, we learn that democracy is really about collaboration and co-operation. If we remain only spectators, all we know are the conflicts and confrontations of national politics that we see on the TV. Our young citizens have told us that they are interested in their place, not party politics. Everyday democracy is not something that we should feel afraid to teach our young people.
In developing our Democracy Friendly Schools programme, we’ve had the honour of working with and hearing from some remarkable young people. But our youth councillors have told us that they don’t want to be remarkable. They want local democracy to be a normal part of growing up, for all young people. We’ve learnt a lot from our young citizens about how we can begin to make that happen.
Firstly, we know that working in both primary schools and high schools, requires a flexible approach that supports each school's circumstance and resources and gives young people the option to learn in small steps, in the way that they want to. The creativity of our school communities during lockdown inspired us to offer a series of Everyday democracy activities for young people to explore at home or in school. These encourage creative ways of thinking about what makes young people proud of where they live and talking about how things have changed in their everyday lives.
Making connections is also important. We’ve recently worked with fellow Democracy Pioneers to pilot a new Meet your councillors session for schools, to make sure that the experiences of young people during lockdown and beyond are being listened to by decision makers. This session is designed to create opportunities for councillors and young people to develop a relationship and work together in their local area. We’re also working with West Yorkshire Archive Service on new resources to help young citizens explore our local democratic heritage as a way of inspiring action and involvement today, such as a video story about how Huddersfield became The Town That Bought Itself.
We believe that there needs to be a continuous, coherent civic pathway through which our young citizens can grow their learning and understanding of democracy at a natural pace. But to do this, all schools and councils need to be involved – otherwise the pathways for our young people will be broken when they transition to a new school. What happens after school also matters. We’re working with partners to create further opportunities for engaging with everyday democracy, such as activities with NCS, with local colleges and with the University of Huddersfield.
One of our youth councillors told us she finds it frightening to think how much she and her peers might not have known without our local democracy training. We recently met a wonderful member of school staff who is busy supporting young people to have a voice through their school council and who clearly believes in democratic involvement. She is 40 years old and has never voted. She told us that she doesn’t feel she understands enough yet to be able to cast an informed vote, so has chosen not to.
We want every school to become Democracy Friendly and to champion democratic education. It’s a huge aspiration, but we know that this alone is not enough. We know that citizens of all ages need to feel that they are part of their democracy. So we need to change our understanding of what local democracy is and change how democracy happens. But most importantly, democracy needs to become something familiar to us all, that we recognise as part of our everyday lives, even when (or perhaps especially when) life itself feels unfamiliar.