Young People Have A Right To Be Engaged

Maisy Evans writes that expanding the franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds was the right thing to do but now we need to make it an informed vote.

For years, young people have had no voice in making key decisions that affect them and their futures. Subsequently, policies and procedures often overlook our needs and desires.

Proudly, Scotland and Wales are leading the way with youth participation; we’re engaging more young people in decision-making than ever before. June 2020 will forever be a landmark month – and not just because of COVID-19 – as 16 and 17 year olds have been granted the right to vote in Senedd elections – a worry for many perhaps, but a demonstration of concrete change.

Being a member of Wales’ first ever Youth Parliament, I consider myself a very politically active, passionate and determined teenager. Having worked tirelessly on earning the vote for young people for almost two years, finally we are able to reap the benefits of such hard work. From now on, young people will be at the centre of the decisions that affect them most. 

The decision was not made lightly by the Welsh Parliament (or, at the time still, the Assembly). In November 2019, 32% of AMs voted against enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds as part of a wider bill that included several changes to the voting franchise, including votes for foreign nationals, and provisions to rename the Welsh Assembly, making it today’s Welsh Parliament. 

Watching the debate live at the Senedd and viewing the release of the vote’s results, I felt disappointed, disheartened and quite upset. I struggled to understand how 19 politicians could fail to see young people’s passion for their area of work.

But after a short moment of dejection, it became clear to me that the 19 who voted against the bill weren’t as important in this situation for the remaining 41 had faith in the youngest generation: the future of Wales.

The Welsh Youth Parliament (WYP) is a prime example of how Wales is pioneering in promoting youth voice, empowering 60 young people from across the country – including myself – and providing them with incredible opportunities.

Not only is the WYP spawning future leaders and expanding their political knowledge, it is making a real difference, right now. With regards to business, the members have worked on areas including emotional and mental health support, littering and plastic waste and life skills in the curriculum.

Issue-focused committees made up of WYP members have been working towards change, carrying out vital research amongst young people. The prospect of work being done on all of our priority areas is thrilling – at last young people have the platform to make a true difference and the Welsh Parliament has the obligation to listen to our voices.

This is as a result of the declaration announced by myself in June 2019 which set out the principles that underpin the relationship between the WYP and its parent parliament to ensure that young people in Wales have a voice at the highest level.

In October 2019, a report was published by members of the Life Skills in the Curriculum Committee, highlighting the need for a stronger, better and more accessible curriculum in Wales. 

It should be a source of national shame that we are failing to produce politically active citizens who are able to cast an educated and informed vote.

With votes at 16 now in place, political education has even greater significance and having examined the need for political education, the WYP and other organisations will be working to provide young people with the necessary information to cast an informed vote.

Soon, the reformed curriculum in Wales will come into effect in every school, and who knows how successful it will be. Guaranteed, it will not be successful unless Wales’ youngest generation is educated on essential topics.

Defining an ‘essential topic’ is not easy, but from research I’ve carried out alongside others it has become clear that there is an appetite for learning the most basic life skills such as cooking simple meals, household skills, having safer sex and calculating expenses. Currently, it is evident that many young people lack some fundamental knowledge.

If life skills like these are built into the curriculum, we could see a substantial difference in our communities. Leaving our education system, many more would be better-inclined to combat life’s challenges and therefore would contribute to society in more effective ways. I’ve been described as an ‘A* robot’ in the past, and it’s true that without a fuller set of life skills developed in schooling, our development can be quite narrow.

Part of the new curriculum focuses on creating ‘ethical, informed citizens’. This is a laudable aim, but one that needs some practical outcome in the teaching of life skills like I’ve outlined above.

Is someone who lacks the ability to take responsibility for the actions they take ‘ethical’? Is someone who’s incapable of deciding which political party to support ‘informed’? Is someone who’s unable to calculate their own taxes ‘informed’? It should be a source of national shame that we are failing to produce politically active citizens who are able to cast an educated and informed vote.

A number of politicians believe that 16 and 17 year olds are too young to vote because they are irresponsible, naive and are too young to understand. Hitherto, it has been assumed that young people have no interest in politics but clearly many do.

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In advance of the new Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act coming into place, many projects were undertaken in an attempt to grasp young people’s thoughts on voting at 16 and on political education. These showed an extremely clear demand for political education and even more encouragingly, an interest in this subject.

It’s unfair to say, as many still do, that young people aren’t responsible enough to vote or are too naive; nor are we ‘too young to understand’.

I never thought that our projects in the Welsh Youth Parliament would have such an impact on young people. We witnessed excitement and enthusiasm but we also began to feel a sense of shame in realising the deficiency of political education in Wales.

Our political landscape has fundamentally shifted in the past few years. In the context of Brexit, COVID-19 and fake news, young people have more at stake than ever before with such factors having a direct impact on our futures.

Whilst this time is tremendously exciting for young people, it concerns me that the framework for political education is not yet in place.

In order for young people to feel fully equipped to jump at the opportunity to vote, we must continue to encourage youth participation through education and platforms such as the WYP because undoubtedly, every young person deserves to be engaged in the making of decisions affecting them at a personal, local and national level.

After all, whilst young people are very much the future, we are more so the present! 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Maisy Evans is a pupil at Welsh-medium secondary school Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw. Her academic interests include Mathematics and the Sciences. Outside of school, she finds herself promoting youth voice through various platforms as well as volunteering for St John Ambulance Cymru.

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