Walking past Y4 Oak class, shouts of “Order! Order!” fill the air. No, it’s not a new behaviour management strategy – it’s a whole-class House of Commons-style debate.
The importance of ‘British values’ is one of those vague things we’re told to make a key part of our school life, but it often ends up as a forced, faded display in some dusty corner of a school corridor.
Something referred to every so often, without fully understanding how to really make it relevant for the children, especially when it comes to democracy. I knew there must be a better way to approach teaching democracy beyond when we study ancient Greece. I discovered that by making a few small changes, teaching British values could (and did) become a massively valuable, engaging and enjoyable part of our school life.
Put it to the vote
Our first step was to turn the school council into our pupil parliament – a simple measure, but one which turned out to have a huge impact. Each class has its own MP, who represents their group’s views in meetings and then feeds back the outcomes to the children. To become an MP, the candidates campaign, create a list of ideas and promises – their manifestos – and deliver a ‘Why you should vote for me’ speech. The pupils then fill out individual ballots and vote in secret. A school prime minister from Y6 is also voted for and they act as the head boy or girl.
The school MPs and PM meet regularly with a member of SLT to discuss their classes’ ideas, feed back on previous ‘actions’ discussed, vote on new ideas and even set up in-school petitions for things such as ‘Music on the playground at lunchtime’. Minutes are taken at these meetings and displayed in each classroom.
Explicitly linking what the children are doing to how Britain’s actual voting system and parliament works has built a much deeper understanding of elections and why it’s important to vote. This isn’t too different from the way schools already elect council representatives, prefects or head boys and girls, but by making these small changes the children are able to really articulate what democracy means, why it’s important and use words like ‘campaign’, ‘manifesto’, ‘ballot’ and ‘representative’ in an informed way.
Now, having a pupil parliament is all well and good, but how do we make democracy part of our normal curriculum when our timetables are already bursting at the seams?
Well, it so happened that our reciprocal reading text was the ‘Discover the UK Parliament’ primary schools booklet (print copies can be ordered for free), and the children wanted to know what the word ‘debate’ meant. This led to a discussion about how the MPs in the House of Commons debate and the kind of things they talk about.
I mentioned that one recent debate had been about the sugar tax, and suddenly the whole room was filled with shouts of, “It’s not fair,” and, “But I love fizzy pop.” So the afternoon’s science lesson went out of the window and we held a proper, parliament-style debate. I was blown away by the children’s enthusiasm, maturity and the wide range of different arguments they came up with.
First, the children had to research and think about the pros and cons for each side of the argument. Next, I separated them into two groups – the party in power who were for the sugar tax, and the opposition party who were against.
They were given roles, such as leader, deputy leader and minister for business, and then sat in rows of chairs facing each other as they do in the House of Commons. I played the role of the Speaker of the House and the children had to stand up if they wished to say something. I referred to each child as ‘the Right Honourable’ and they were allowed to clap if they agreed with someone’s point – but no booing!
The results were incredible. These children, who often find it hard to listen, talk in groups effectively and offer detailed reasons in their comprehension answers, were being respectful, thinking about what had been said and giving informed and thought-through responses.
Some even went home and watched real parliamentary debates. By giving the debate a very clear structure, making them stand, rather than put their hands up and framing it all in the style of the House of Commons, the children were utterly engaged and left with a new understanding of democracy. We did catch up on that missed science lesson in the end – but more importantly, I’d learnt the power of teaching democracy.
Debates like this now form part of our English programme of study, developing the children’s reasoning and oracy skills, as well as their understanding of the democratic process. In fact, we’re looking to organise a Nottingham Junior Parliament for this summer, bringing primary children together from different schools across the county to take part in House of Commons-style debates.
I’ve also since discovered that you can not only invite your local MP into school, but also request a free visit from a member of the House of Lords. We’ve had two peers in school so far, and both times the children have been enthralled.
And did you know that anyone can set up a formal petition to government that may potentially be debated in the House of Commons? As soon as we learned about this, the children and I went on to the petition.parliament.uk website and set one up.
A girl suggested we petition to get more help for children in school with type 1 diabetes, so that’s what we did. Now the children check the petition to see how many votes it has, look at the map to see where people have voted and even try to think up ways to get more votes.
We’ve also taken part in UK Parliament Week, had free workshops in school from the parliament education team and booked for 30 children to visit the Houses of Parliament, after discovering that you can take school groups around there for free, with travel cost subsidies.
When I first thought about teaching children about the British value of ‘democracy’, I saw it as a one-off lesson to tick a box. Very quickly, however, it became clear that it could become something that not only engages the children in learning about it, but could also impact other areas of their academic and social education.
5 steps to engage pupils with democracy
- Create a school pupil parliament, giving the children the opportunity to campaign and vote
- Hold House of Commons-style debates about topics that are relevant to the children, such as the start of the school day
- Invite your local MP or peer into school to talk with and work alongside the children. You can find the contact details for all MPs and Lords here
- Visit the Houses of Parliament for free by filling out the application available at parliament.uk/education – don’t forget to apply for the travel subsidy too
- Take part in UK Parliament Week on 2-8 November by signing up at ukparliamentweek.org – as well as receiving lots of free resources, you can join in with a series of live lessons
Sally Maddison is deputy head of Sir John Sherbrooke Junior School, Nottingham, an SLE and a Shakespeare ambassador for primary schools.