Teaching the General Election


After five years of coalition government, the forthcoming General Election on May 7 looks set to be a particularly fierce battle. Emma Lee-Potter looks at how schools might tackle the subject in class.

With two months to go until polling day, schools are keen to get pupils interested in the General Election.

Amid widespread concern about voter apathy among young people, there is no doubt that engaging the next generation in politics and democracy is important. 

After all, young people may be able to vote at the age of 16 in the future. Ed Miliband has promised to lower the voting age to 16 if Labour is elected on May 7, while David Cameron, who believes the voting age should remain at 18, has said he would be open to allowing MPs to vote on the issue.

Most secondary pupils learn about elections and voting as part of the national curriculum for citizenship (which is statutory at key stages 3 and 4).

The aims of the citizenship curriculum state that all pupils should “acquire a sound knowledge and understanding of how the United Kingdom is governed, its political system and how citizens participate actively in its democratic systems of government”.

The Houses of Parliament’s Education Service works with schools to support young people in developing their understanding of Parliament and democracy. With this in mind, it provides lesson resources, offers CPD opportunities for teachers and runs age-differentiated tours and workshops at Westminster for pupils aged four to 18. 

Around 45,000 students visit the Houses of Parliament each year, although the opening of a new Parliament Education Centre this summer means the number will double to around 100,000 a year. Workshops and tours tend to be over-subscribed, so it is essential to book well in advance.

One of the Education Service’s most popular workshops focuses on elections and voting. As well as being given a tour of the Palace of Westminster students are introduced to the concepts of democracy and representation and get the chance to participate in their own mock General Election. They create manifestos, present their proposals and vote using a real ballot box.

“The really nice thing about the General Election for me is that it gives a practical opportunity for schools to engage and deliver on aspects that are in the citizenship curriculum already,” said Emma-Jane Watchorn, head of Parliament’s Education Service and a trustee of the Citizenship Foundation.

“The current curriculum is quite content-based but good citizenship education is also about skills development. What you get with the General Election is an opportunity to explore and develop students’ skills, particularly in terms of things like debating, analysing other viewpoints and providing evidence to back up their arguments.”

The Citizenship Foundation believes that good citizenship education is underpinned by knowledge, skills and action and the General Election gives schools the opportunity to marry all three elements in an immediate and very tangible way. Some schools, for instance, run their own mock elections on off-timetable days. 

“Students are going to be surrounded by party campaigns, manifestos and electioneering over the next few weeks and mock elections are a chance for them to engage in active and experiential learning,” Dr Watchorn continued.

“The students take on different roles within the election process, such as holding manifesto hustings or acting as counting officers, and they get that sense of learning through doing, which is a very powerful tool.”

To help make the experience more real, the Education Service has created an election toolkit for schools, consisting of items like a polling station poster, party manifesto posters, a rosette template, policy cards, electoral register and polling cards. A new batch of election toolkits is currently being printed but schools can add their names to the waiting list via email (see further information).

Schools can also order a Parliament loan box to bring politics to life in the classroom. Items that can be borrowed include cloth backdrops of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, a black robe worn by the Speaker of the House of Commons, a Parliamentary Bill (so students can see what a proposal for a new law looks like), a mace (the ceremonial mace lies on the table in front of the speaker when MPs are debating and symbolises the monarch’s involvement in the political process), and a despatch box (so they can mimic a real Parliamentary debate).

Other election-related resources include Create the Debate, which helps students to hone their debating skills, and The General Election Explained, which covers aspects like how elections work, who can vote and how to register. 

There is also an animated one-minute video called General Election in Nearly 60 Seconds, which neatly explains everything from the number of eligible voters (46 million) to the first past the post system.

Teachers often use the General Election to teach other aspects of the curriculum, too. In maths students can compare the share of the vote at different elections with the percentage of seats won by parties, while history provides the opportunity to look at the history of democracy. 

Student voice has an important role to play in engaging young people too. While many schools set up school councils, Dr Watchorn came across one school where students ran a student-led mock Parliament, complete with a range of select committees focusing on themes relevant to the school, such as health, the environment and catering.

Students are fascinated to discover that school buildings themselves are sometimes used as polling stations and that voting takes place from early in the morning to late at night. Another aspect that intrigues them when they visit Westminster is that members of the public can come to the Central Lobby and request to see their MP at any time. 

“We ask them ‘how old do you think you have to be to do that?’ and they always think it’s 18 or 21,” said Dr Watchorn. “They are amazed when they realise you don’t have to be a certain age to come in and connect.”

“A lot of what Parliament is trying to do is to break down these barriers, both real and perceived, to engage people with democracy and to let them know they can be involved. For some young people that will start at school and it’s all about giving them the confidence and the resources to get involved in their school council or citizenship committees.”

An alternative idea...

Abolish alarm clocks, put swimming pools on trains, ban anyone under the age of 50 from wearing a bow tie. 

These are just three points listed on 12-year-old Joe Parker’s manifesto when he unintentionally becomes prime minister.

Joe is the protagonist of The Accidental Prime Minister, a new children’s novel, and while author Tom McLaughlin wrote it to entertain his readers, he hopes that it might get youngsters interested in the forthcoming General Election too.

“My main aim was to make people laugh,” he said. “What I really wanted to do was explore what it would be like if a child ran the country, what sort of silly and crazy things they might get up to. 

“It wasn’t intended to make a wider point about politics and politicians but the more I wrote, the more I realised that through the eyes of a child, the world of politics must be a bewildering one.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.

Further information
  • To add your name to the waiting list for the election toolkit mentioned in this article, email requests@edcoms.co.uk
  • To find out more about Parliament’s Education Service, go to www.parliament.uk/education/
  • The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin  is available now (Oxford University Press, £6.99).


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