Choices for Britain was the first poll of its kind in the United Kingdom. More than 2,000 pupils between 14 and 19 at schools in Avon took part in the pilot project. They were asked what they wanted Britain to be like in a decade. The aim was to give students an opportunity to discuss and learn about policy issues, before sampling opinion.
Business sponsors and political think-tanks are interested in the scheme as a way of involving people in decision making. Public Voice International, the Bristol-based research organisation which co-ordinated the experiment, hopes to launch a similar national poll. It also hopes that this kind of debliberative polling will become a regular feature of the national curriculum.
Full results of the pilot survey are published this week. About half the state schools and colleges in Avon participated. All the students were given tabloid-style information packs which asked them: 'What kind of future do you want to live in?'.
There were four options, ranging from an isolationist Britain, wholly focused on internal issues; to a global Britain, which plays a more altruistic role in the world. The four futures were derived with the help of educationalists and were specifically designed not to coincide with party-political visions for the country.
The children were also asked to develop their own future for Britain. Some drew posters; others wrote poems. In one school, some pupils made a video describing their vision. Over several weeks, pupils debated the futures in class and were then asked to participate in a poll. The results are instructive: participants were not as idealistic as some had supposed.
Most, for instance, had an emotional loyalty to environmental issues but decided that resolving social problems, such as homelessness, were in the end more important. The most popular 'future' (31 per cent) was 'Euro-Britain'. In this scenario, Britain shares its currency with other European states and is working towards a common defence and foreign policy. Britain is richer; but it has lost some of its independence.
Twenty-nine per cent voted for 'Island Britain', an alternative in which the UK curtails its international involvements and focuses on internal problems. Britain no longer regards itself as 'important' or tries to assert that it is.
Twenty-two per cent chose 'Global Britain'. In this case the country would involve itself much more in global problem-solving. The Third World would have more of a say in the future of the planet, with prices in Britain rising as a result.
'Great Britain' was the least popular (20 per cent). This version has Britain playing an important role in the world but dedicated to national integrity. It shuns European unity. Pupils were also asked a variety of questions about contemporary Britain, and a pessimistic consensus emerged.
Half of those taking part (50 per cent) believed that, in 10 years, the UK would be a worse place to live in than it is now. Only 17 per cent thought it would be better. Most were anxious that Britain should spend everything it has on self-improvement, and to focus exclusively on promoting local standards of living.
Fifty-six per cent did not want the UK to buy more from the Third World if it meant prices would rise at home; 47 per cent did not want British forces involved in peacekeeping if there was any prospect of casualties.
There were contradictions. Only 20 per cent agreed that Europe should adopt a common currency, despite the number that voted for the Euro-Britain future in which this would be a part.
Karl Berger, project co-ordinator, said the poll followed the precedent of a United States experiment in the mid-Eighties during which residents in four large cities were asked to examine their attitudes to the Soviet Union. 'If you ask questions stupidly then you get a stupid response. You cannot find out what people think about issues by asking them in the way of a traditional opinion poll; you have got to involve them. That was the point: to help the students clarify their own thinking.'
Jane McKinnell, of IBM, which was one of the project sponsors, concluded: 'I can see scope for it expanding to encompass useful business skills to prepare students for working life.'
The concept of deliberative polling is not universally accepted, and this study will prompt controversy. How much can we rely on the results as true indicators of what the pupils really believe? How much reflects their relative ignorance of very complex issues? Can such things be taught in a matter of hours? Mr Berger believes the importance of the method lies as much in the element of participation, as in the results: 'We asked these pupils: what do you want? And we discovered that they had never been asked that before.
'I do not believe that the public is tapped enough for its ideas. These children were interested in their future; and I think everybody else is too.'
Project results can be obtained from: PVI, 82 Colston Street, Bristol, BS1 5BB; pounds 10.
(Photograph and table omitted)
Leading article, page 17