Leading Article: Britain's future should be seen and heard

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The Independent Online
THE VALUE of the 'Choices for Britain' project described on page two is not primarily as an opinion poll on the attitudes of young people. It is certainly useful to know that most of those asked think that Britain is becoming a worse place to live in, that social problems are now the greatest threat to the country, that we should give domestic problems priority and that we should work with Europeans rather than 'do what we want'. But these answers, although they may well be representative, come from fewer than 3,000 people aged 14 to 18 in Avon only.

More interesting is what the exercise tells us about political education. The aim of the experiment was to teach the participants about decision-making by confronting them with a set of options, each with advantages and disadvantages, risks, trade-offs and costs - as in the real world. What struck the teachers and organisers was the enthusiasm with which the pupils responded after being asked to imagine themselves as Government advisers and then to examine options and make their own proposals. Many felt they had not been listened to in this way before. Nor had problems been so clearly and objectively explained.

In theory this ought not to be so. The media are full of experts explaining every problem under the sun and politicians putting at least three viewpoints, while pollsters listen constantly to what the public says it wants. If schoolchildren feel left out it is partly because they are below voting age and are often more interested in other things. But, while it would be wrong to extrapolate too far, their age group is not the only one that finds expert debate too often above its head and political debate too much concerned with posturing, point-scoring, and the making of unreal promises.

The lesson of the experiment is that children have reserves of political interest and engagement that could be better developed to prepare them for citizenship. As the best teachers know already, they respond when taken seriously and listened to. If they are to become informed voters they need especially to learn the methodology and real difficulties of mature decision- making: how to weigh up options, understand trade-offs and appreciate the compromises that have to made in an imperfect world. The Avon experiment has shown the way. It deserves wider application.