Politically interested, articulate and well-reasoned – why we should give 16 year olds the vote
Today our country goes to the polls to make arguably the most important decision for a generation. Whether we are ‘in’ or ‘out’, ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, the outcome of the vote has the potential to have a huge impact on every aspect of our lives. For some of our girls it will be the first opportunity to exercise their democratic rights. However, the vast majority at Headington will have absolutely no say whatsoever in a decision which will shape the direction their country takes. Those born before Thursday 23rd June 1998 will be able to make up their own minds. Those born a day or more later will have to rely on their slightly older peers, their parents, their teachers and everybody else who qualifies to make the right decision.
As a girls’ school established in 1915 – before any women in the UK had the vote – encouraging our girls to take an active part in democracy is extremely important. Headington has strong links with the campaign to bring votes for women, with suffragette Christabel Pankhurst choosing to send her adopted daughter Aurea Clifford to the School in 1929. We need to remember that for generations, women were not considered competent to vote, in the same bracket as criminals and the mentally incompetent. While we have moved on significantly from that point – there is no longer any difference between gender in terms of who gets the vote and thankfully you no longer need to be a landowner to qualify – we are still disenfranchising a large number of politically interested, articulate and well-reasoned individuals by setting the bar at 18. When we look at the tragic murder of inspirational MP Jo Cox last week, it is clear it is more important than ever to give people the opportunity to engage in the political process at the earliest practicable opportunity, to allow them to take part in informed debate and to truly have their voices heard.
Obviously a line must be drawn somewhere which will mean that yes, if your birthday falls either side of an invisible line then you will either be able to vote or not but I believe there is a strong argument for lowering the voting age to 16. I look at the 16 and 17 year olds at Headington and I am constantly amazed at how mature they are in every respect. During each election at Headington we hold mock elections, with girls researching different political parties then campaigning on their behalf before we hold our own vote. We had a fantastic debate on Tuesday with both the Remain and Leave sides represented by our sixth formers, none of whom are eligible to vote themselves, with a wide selection of girls from different age groups getting involved in the questions, followed by our own referendum. In Scotland, 16 year olds were allowed to vote on Scottish Independence. They will not, however, be able to vote today unless they are now 18. Having had a taste for suffrage, they will be forced to sit on their hands and let others decide on their behalf.
These young people may be more educated as to the facts, more aware of the issues, more involved and engaged and more interested but they will have to trust that others will be equally diligent, choose wisely and, perhaps most important of all, actually go out and use their vote. Over the last week our sixth formers have heard from speakers campaigning from both ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ camps, with many seeking additional information and picking up ‘In’ or ‘Out’ posters to display. We have a wide range of flourishing societies with a political bent, from FemSoc to Amnesty International, from the Model United Nations to Debating Club. They want to find out more – they want to be part of it. This is real grass roots politics. I don’t mean party politics but politics in the broader sense. Interest in the impact that policies and decisions made by those in power make on our lives. Interest in making a difference. By saying ‘sorry, you’re not old enough’ we risk crushing a burgeoning interest in democracy. With voter turnout creeping in a downwards direction and the culture of hate, intolerance and fear which may have contributed to Jo Cox’s death, we desperately need to capture that enthusiasm.
It is too late this time for our 16 and 17 year olds but I hope our leaders will heed the call to lower the voting age and put the wheels in motion to open up the vote to young adults. As for the girls who have reached the ‘age of majority’ – I urge them to go out and vote today!
Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School