Politically-charged times

All eyes, tomorrow, will be on the inauguration of a businessman and former reality television star to the highest political office in the world. It caps a year of dramatic political change, sometimes rancorous debate and heated arguments that divided families, friends and neighbourhoods along stark but previously invisible lines.

Back in June I celebrated the opportunity some of our eldest girls had to take part, for the first time, in the democratic process by exercising their vote in the EU referendum. At the same time, I called for a rethink on the voting age, calling for the bar to be lowered to allow 16 and 17 year olds to take their turn at the ballot box. We, as a nation, have been talking more about politics and how we believe huge political decisions will affect us than ever before. This sounds, in theory, like a good thing but in what has been dubbed a ‘post-truth’, ‘post expert’ era, some worrying trends are becoming apparent.

For some people, the results of the two big votes were a huge shock. How could so many people hold such different views? As outgoing US President Barack Obama said in his farewell address last week, it has become, for many of us, safer to ‘retreat into our own bubbles’, surrounded by people who look like us, share similar views and don’t challenge our outlook. If we reside in our echo chambers and hear our own views bounced back at us, then it becomes much harder to walk in someone else’s shoes and see their point of view. We know that the clever minds behind social media exploit this in their algorithms – if we ‘like’ something, we see more of it. If we dismiss something, ‘hide’ it because it doesn’t fit in with how we see things, it will disappear from view. If we are to truly understand other views, this has to stop.

This is important to young people and educators for a number of reasons. Much has been made of the high proportion of younger voters who voted to Remain in the UK and how different the result might have been if the voting age was lowered. However, early indications suggested just 36 per cent of 18-24 year olds registered to vote actually did so. Back in June, I praised the young women at Headington as politically-interested, articulate and well-reasoned – deserving of a vote for a future which affects them as much as anyone. Statistics show, however, that many of them will not vote when they have an opportunity to do so at the next general election in four years time. Lots of young non-voters, after the referendum, said ‘but I voted on Facebook’. How do we make sure that last year’s politically-engaged 16 and 17 year olds do not become 20 and 21 year olds who don’t bother to vote?

It is absolutely vital to get people talking to each other – to those who have different views and those from other sides of the political spectrum. One of the ways we get girls at Headington to do this is through offering them a wide range of debating opportunities. We have a flourishing Debating Society, take part in the Model United Nations and work with Oxford Union. Twenty-two schools will be coming to Headington on Monday 30th January for an Oxford Union debating event. Our girls will not just be confronted with other ideas and opinions, they will also be challenged to defend views which they do not themselves hold – unpicking the justifications for concepts which may be entirely alien to them. Before we criticise those who make choices we never would, first we must understand them. And to do that, we must talk to them.

I will continue to challenge our girls to step out of their bubbles, to listen to each other, to seek out facts as well as opinions before they make up their minds. I hope when they get their turn at the ballot box, they will not feel disenfranchised, but empowered.

Caroline Jordan, Headmistress, Headington School

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