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Engaging young people with politics: trusting schools and enfranchising 16-year olds

This opinion piece is over 9 years old

Dr Jan Eichhorn on how young people engaged with politics beyond what we expected during the referendum

The referendum on Scottish independence was remarkable in many ways. But one key feature had little to do with the relationship of Scotland and the UK, however it may have far-reaching consequences.

For the first time 16- and 17-year olds were allowed to take part in a national vote. This decision was greeted with some applause, but also a lot of caution.

Many suspicions were raised about young people being disinterested in politics, not informed about any of the issues, mainly just voting like their parents or inappropriately influenced by teachers in school. While these concerns may be considered genuine, there was a major problem: We did not have empirical data to properly verify these claims.

We did know that young people have been much less likely to vote in previous elections compared to older members of the electorate. But equating this with political apathy would be a stretch – as we know from many strands of research, young people may feel a strong distance to party politics, but they have increasingly taken up other forms of political engagement.

Secondly, most studies have analysed those 18 and above – so drawing conclusions for under 18-year olds may be inappropriate, as they largely spend their days in a rather distinct context compared to their slightly older counterparts: school education.

To address this lack of representative data on under-18 year olds we conducted two representative surveys of 14-17 year olds in Scotland in April and May 2013 and 2014. We[1] interviewed them and one of their parents separately on their referendum and general political attitudes.[2]

With this unique set of data we were able to engage with the claims made about young people. Many of them did not represent their actual attitudes and engagement. Their levels of general political interest were very similar to those of adults, their likelihood to vote increased substantially throughout the campaign to unprecedented levels and they mostly had talked to different people about the referendum and sought out information about it from multiple sources.[3] They could hardly be described as politically apathetic, but they were substantially less likely to associate themselves with a political party than adults.

Many suspicions were raised about young people being disinterested in politics, not informed about any of the issues, mainly just voting like their parents or inappropriately influenced by teachers in school

Crucially, however, young people showed that they made up their minds in more complex ways than we often portray them as doing. Over 40% had a different voting intention than the parent we interviewed, for example. Even more crucially, while those who had talked to parents were more likely to vote in the referendum, they were no more or less likely to have greater self-perceived political confidence or understanding. Parents were not seen as a source of trustworthy political information and young people did not simply follow their views.

Those who had discussed the referendum in school, however, tended to have greater levels of political confidence and understanding.[4] School played a distinctive role.

Crucially, it was not enough to simply take a class in modern studies. Those who had taken the class, but not discussed the referendum actively in it did not experience the same positive effect. So while a class like modern studies provided a good space for many to engage with a political issue, the important aspect was that active discussion.

At the same time, young people were not biased in their views because of their class engagement, so fears about inappropriate ideological influences were not confirmed.

What we could observe was that young people who were enfranchised to vote in the referendum engaged with politics beyond what we would normally expect for this age group.

But this engagement was facilitated substantially through schools providing a space for active and informed discussion in the classroom. At no later stage in life do we have effectively all members of a generation in the same institution were their first voting experience could be accompanied by qualified teachers.

A lowered voting age itself is not necessarily a key driver to engage young people with representative politics. But through schools there is an opportunity to achieve this our data suggests (and confirms research from Austria where the voting age was lowered to 16 for all elections in 2007). We need more research to analyse how young people engage with normal elections in Scotland as well – however, even in the special case of the referendum we saw a greater number associating themselves again with political parties in 2014 compared to 2013, suggesting that through engaging actively with politics in schools when enfranchised early young people may even see more relevance in political parties again.

Dr Jan Eichhorn is from the University of Edinburgh's School of Social and Political Science (Social Policy)


[1] The project was carried out by a team from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science (Jan Eichhorn, Lindsay Paterson, John MacInnes and Michael Rosie) with input from researchers from the think tank d|part. The project was funded through the ESRC’s Future of the UK and Scotland programme and managed under the auspices of the Applied Quantitative Methods Network (AQMeN).

[2] Details about the survey, its methodology and an overview of key results can be obtained from:

[3] Details on these findings can be obtained from:

[4] For a detailed analysis please see the following briefing: