Engaging students in the democratic process


Surbiton High School has been taking part in the Rock Enrol initiative, which is aimed at engaging students in the democratic process. Ian Smith explains


For Parliament Week at the end of last year, three of our year 13 students, Hannah, Bella and Verity, joined 10 schools at the Houses of Parliament and participated in a stimulating Rock Enrol workshop to raise the profile of voter registration among young people. 

We contributed to debates and engaged in activities that broadened understanding and challenged their pre-conceptions about UK society and the economy.

A high point of the event was Sam Gyimah, the minister for the constitution, meeting students, joining in the debates and stressing the importance of young people registering to vote to make their voices heard. Afterwards, we had a tour of Parliament.

Since then, we have used all the Rock Enrol resources to inspire engagement across the whole school in preparation for the upcoming General Election. 

The materials are accessible and stimulating to motivate our pupils, teachers and parents. In sessions run across the school with different year groups, we used allocated PSHE time in addition to lunchtime slots to run the four activities – Vote with your feet, Critical issues and hot potatoes, Show me the money, and At the ballot box.

We used the first of the sessions, Vote with your feet, in a year 11 PSHE session. Pupils moved around the classroom to express their views on questions such as “Should violent video games should be banned?”, “Are there grounds to reintroduce the death penalty?” and “Should the legal age for drinking alcohol be raised to 21?”.

Heated debate challenged preconceptions and illustrated polarised views. Allocating stickers to those registered to vote ignited further discourse on fairness, the value of opinion, and the importance of registration. 

This was followed up with a more measured discussion on “Why vote”. The balance between active learning and reflective discussion was a quality outcome for us. This led to a follow-up “hot potatoes” session, which we would recommend as a key element in framing the debate. Of all the sessions we did, this plenary-style focus group had a big impact on our pupils’ election preparations.

Registration by our older pupils in the sixth form has been raised as awareness of the importance of voting has been promoted visually and through PSHE activities using the different resources. Prior to using the materials, many of our students were not aware of how to register, such as online using SmartPhones, and many managed to do it quickly on their iPads.

The Rock Enrol video content has been effective in developing our pupils’ political literacy and encouraging open debate across a variety of key topics. The Rock Enrol clips (What Matters To You?, What Does Government Do? And Why Register To Vote?) helped to embed content into the existing curriculum.

Subjects such as economics, history, geography and maths have embraced different activities and integrated them into the wider curriculum. Show me the money was a favourite that addressed the importance of budgets, enterprise and financial literacy. The table on the government’s budget is excellent and really got pupils to consider priorities and challenge preconceptions – discussing international aid, culture and sport, defence and benefits certainly created heated argument, beyond anything usually achieved on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon in class.

We did “speed-voting” with younger pupils in year 9 as they had been discussing different laws and consent in their recent PSHE sessions. Speed-voting and the use of iPads added a dynamic which proved highly engaging.

Pupils in different year groups have discovered how the voting system works and been involved in role-plays, using the resources, to explore alternative voting systems. Sixth form students have run sessions for the younger pupils to examine the priorities within the various campaigns by different political parties.

Getting the older pupils to mentor as “ambassadors” was powerful and connected with the recent Scottish independence vote in highlighting the value of youth voice and the maturity of their contributions. The sixth form “ambassadors” organised our school election and all the hustings, using the “At the Ballot Box” materials to make it more real.

One of our year 13 pupils, Branwen Philips, was asked to join a government panel discussion, alongside professionals from education and youth advisory groups, to give a young person’s perspective on politics and democracy. It is good for one of our students to get this recognition and opportunity to have their say.

Rock Enrol helps our teachers to inspire students by provoking challenging debate around topical issues and stimulating interest in social action. 

The materials are fun and creative, encouraging students to think independently and collaboratively on diverse issues that are relevant to their lives as UK citizens.

The further suggestions for youth engagement have been picked up by some of our keener students, many of who hold ambitions to represent local communities. Every pupil was given a “What next?” voting card with suggested websites highlighted by Rock Enrol.

  • Ian Smith is vice-principal of Surbiton High School in Surrey.

Further information
CAPTIONS: Engagement: Students from 10 schools taking part in a Rock Enrol workshop at the Houses of Parliament during Parliament Week 2014, attended by minister for the constitution Sam Gyimah – pictured in the top image speaking to students (PHOTOS: The Cabinet Office).


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