Rhydian Thomas argues that young people in Wales need more education and support to understand how voting can influence everyday issues that matter to them.
Since the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act passed in 2020, the conversation surrounding political engagement amongst young people in Wales has focused primarily on the votes at 16 agenda.
The next opportunity for 16-year-olds in Wales to vote will be the 2026 Senedd election. Without an immediate election on the horizon many involved in this work, including the Electoral Commission, are thinking about where the work to engage young people in our democratic process needs to go next.
Yesterday, the Commission published a report on the 2022 local government election. As with the 2021 Senedd election, the report found that while most people were satisfied with this year’s elections, more education and engagement is needed to support young voters to understand and participate. Approximately 1 in 5 newly enfranchised 16-17 year olds in Wales registered to vote ahead of the election, with turnout lowest amongst younger age groups.
Basic knowledge of our democratic systems is patchy amongst young people in Wales, and often relies on informal education at home rather than school-based learning.
Since the extension of the franchise in 2020, the Commission has developed education materials designed to help young people understand how to get involved in democracy and support educators to teach political literacy. These materials were updated ahead of this year’s election, and we continue to expand them. We’ve also worked with a variety of partners and youth groups to inform the learning work, including The Democracy Box. The project facilitated focus groups with young people earlier this year to gather feedback on our resources. This feedback, and our wider work, has consistently shown a lack of motivation to engage in elections amongst young people, due to a lack of knowledge about candidates, parties and the democratic process in general.
Basic knowledge of our democratic systems is patchy amongst young people in Wales, and often relies on informal education at home rather than school-based learning. Our public opinion tracker research found that while 77% of parents think it’s important that children learn the basics about politics, voting and democracy at school, just 22% think the current information their children get on these topics is sufficient. Parents in lower socio-economic households are also less likely to discuss politics at home, widening the knowledge gap amongst young people and increasing the need for school-based learning.
‘Democratic education should start young and be embedded into the curriculum, but continue as young people go on to do different things in different places in both formal and informal education settings and beyond.’ – Recommendation from the Democracy Box’s youth voice evaluation report.
Educating young people purely on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of political parties, elections, government and parliament, while vital, doesn’t necessarily solve the motivation problem. While a lack of understanding about what it is that they’re voting for is one barrier, perhaps a bigger one is a lack of understanding as to how it affects their life. Efforts to engage them are far more successful if we start with the latter, and work back. We need to support young people to identify and articulate issues that matter to them, then understand how these issues can be influenced through democratic participation.
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The new curriculum for Wales has the potential to address this. One of its core aims is to support learners to become ‘ethical, informed citizens who understand and exercise their human and democratic responsibilities and rights.’ It also focuses on teaching concepts, rather than contexts – helping young people to make sense of their unique, everyday lived experiences, and transferring this knowledge to the context of political systems and structures. Weaving democratic awareness consistently through a young person’s education in this way, rather than covering it as a standalone topic during election time, is essential in order to prepare them to utilise their vote when an election does come around.
The success of this will be in the delivery, which in a school setting naturally puts pressure on teachers. A core aim of the Commission’s education work is to support teachers to feel confident in teaching political literacy, by providing them with impartial, factual resources. We are now in the process of developing new resources to support teaching political literacy in the new curriculum. We will also continue to work closely with youth groups, and others working in informal education settings.
In addition to addressing what matters, any attempt to engage with young people should be informed by young people. We will continue working closely with the Democracy Box, to ensure the youth voice is embedded into all our learning work. ‘Young people’ are also not a homogenous group, their knowledge, experiences, and circumstances are widely varied so any effort to connect with them needs to take that into account too.
It’s perhaps easy to assume that young people are simply not interested in voting and politics. But some of the most powerful political movements of recent times – Black Lives Matter, Everyone’s Invited and Friday’s for Future have been driven by young people and their appetite for change. Ahead of 2026, we must educate young people in a way that makes them feel like they are able to drive change in several ways, including at the ballot box.
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