About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Nesta Democracy Pioneers

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.

Smart School Councils help schools to embed a model of direct democracy that involves 100% of pupils and makes regular, youth-led engagement with democracy the norm. Since 2014, 360 schools have come onboard, engaging a total of 40,000 pupils in weekly debates.

Our Class Meeting Tool facilitates quick, pupil-led deliberative meetings. From the age of 5, the whole-school is involved in weekly debates and voting, exploring everything from climate change to everyday school issues. The Class Meeting Tool is also designed to engage marginalised youth with additional challenges, so that every child has the opportunity to participate, transforming schools from representative to direct democracy.

Creating the foundations for an inclusive democracy for all young people

We believe that the roots of democratic disengagement are built into the education system. For youth growing up with socioeconomic disadvantage, democratic exclusion is intensified and, arguably, a systemic failure. The data speaks for itself; 62% of pupils with more than 200 books at home vote in school council elections while only 30% of pupils with fewer than ten books at home do so, and children of parents with degrees are 50% more likely to take part in political activities at school than those whose parents left school at 16.

As well as the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage, the way that schools engage pupils with democracy is flawed. 95% have a school council, a ‘Westminster-style’ model, which typically includes the most confident students acting as representatives for other pupils. But only 2 in 5 young people think their school council listens to them, leading to disillusionment in the democratic process at a young age. This representative model of school councillors replicates our formal system of governance in the UK and the growing dissatisfaction with it.

Changing this needs senior leaders in schools and local councils to recognise that, as well as being unfair, only involving the most confident or advantaged students, affects the way that all students see their role and responsibility within their school community and also their future in the wider democratic system.

One of our new projects, funded by the Mayor of London, is helping the most marginalised young people to lead our programme, specifically those with mental health issues or those who are looked-after. We believe that we need to see more opportunities for pupils like these to fill leadership roles in school. These opportunities support them to engage with their peers and the school community in a way which is beneficial to them, but also to the school community in developing greater tolerance and understanding of difference.

Children working and debating in class

The importance of learning about democracy and developing the skills to participate

While involving everyone directly in democracy seems radical on a UK-scale, if you ask a primary teacher ‘Who’s voice is important in your school?’ they’ll always say ‘everyone!’ It is important that this ideal of equitable access to democratic institutions is a fundamental expectation of all young people. We believe we have an opportunity and responsibility to educate the next generation to have a stake in democracy and expect to be involved. Our schools give their pupils two simple messages. Everyone is involved. And here is how you do it.

We’d like to see schools recognising the fundamental role they play in teaching students about democracy - they are integral in supporting pupils to learn about and develop the skills of collective debate and collective decision making. We are keen to support schools on this journey, knowing that teachers are stretched and time poor. We know how hard it is to step back and think about embedding democratic norms and processes alongside the rest of your day job, and this is why we exist.

Adapting to a new normal: Creating new ways to engage young people

During the recent school closures, our work had to change dramatically. In partnership with Outlandish, we designed, fundraised and built a new online project called Home Debate Club, which is a live weekly debate on a pandemic-related question for young people aged 6-12. Home Debate Club brings debate and democracy from the classroom to the living room, and it’s helped us to learn some important new lessons. Most importantly, engaging young people in the home is best done by introducing topics that help them safely connect with what’s going on in the outside world. We’ve also learnt that engaging their parents or carers in a way that doesn’t expect them to be teachers, but active and encouraging listeners, has helped both to make sense of the complex situation.

The best digital tools are just great tools and it is the process of how they are developed, used and adapted that makes them worthwhile. We’ve found that good design processes have allowed us to be laser-focused on the needs of the six year old who uses the platform to lead a meeting in their class. In scaling any digital initiative, it’s important not to lose sight of the user's experience and have that as your guiding vision - and our work is no different.

The future for us involves working in partnership with others to embed our core principle - that everyone should be involved - and constantly adapt the digital tools we use. Connecting with and supporting others who share this approach is vital to creating the infrastructure for our future democracy. Democratic innovations should be focused on getting everyone involved. For most people currently, involvement in democracy is a passive role. Simple, everyday ways to make that role an active one, for everyone no matter their age, is where innovation should focus.


Greg Sanderson

Greg is Co-Founder of Smart School Councils