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Politics in schools? Yes, if we want children to be active citizens

Children have the right to express their opinions and be heard. Joseph Sohm/

The rights of children have come under the spotlight in South Africa recently. Corporal punishment, which has been banned in the country’s schools since 1996, is now also illegal in the home.

This latest ruling was justified on the basis that children, like adults, have a right to be protected from assault. While the ruling itself has provoked some controversy, the idea of children having “protection rights” – the right to be protected from violent, abusive, cruel or exploitative treatment – has not.

Participation rights”, by contrast, seem to be much more controversial. These, along with protection rights, are accorded to children in Article 12.1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children are assured that they not only have a right to express their views on matters affecting them, but that these views will be given “due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child”.

Recently, a photograph was posted on Twitter that showed three boys holding up school shirts featuring a South African political party’s logo. The resulting outrage – fuelled by former UK cricketer Kevin Pietersen, who attended the school in question while growing up in South Africa – suggests that many are uncomfortable with allowing children their participation rights.

People have often questioned whether politics “should be allowed” in schools. The issue here is whether or not politics affects children. And the answer is yes. We want our children to flourish. To ensure that they do, we need to help them develop their sense of good and evil, justice and injustice. Understanding and engaging with politics is crucial to this development.

Politics and power

Politics is ultimately and essentially about power. Children are arguably one of the least powerful groups in society. Political scientist Jessica Kulynych has argued that society does not see children as political actors and as such, fails to include them in the public sphere. This prevents children from enjoying participation rights: they cannot express their views on matters affecting them.

Schools – the place where children spend so much of their time – have very entrenched power relations. Pupils are the least powerful and most vulnerable in these relationships. They spend much of their time listening to those who have power over them and so many decisions about students are taken without their input.

It’s a common complaint across Africa - and across the globe – that young citizens are particularly unengaged. Turnout is especially low during South African elections among young voters.

But how can we expect young voters to be politically involved if we prevent them from “being political” while they are in school? Schools could be the perfect space for children to learn about and engage with politics.

Talking about their book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy argue that being able to talk about politics is a skill that people need to learn. Schools seem the obvious place to learn this skill: they are not just there to teach students maths and science – they are surely meant to educate young people to become good citizens and contributors to their country.

Kids are political animals, too

The Greek philosopher Aristotle famously claimed that “man is a political animal”. His justification for this was two-fold; he said “It is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust” and also pointed out that we have the gift of speech.

These two capacities allow us form relationships with each other and through association (in families, clubs, societies, and indeed the state), we are able to experience what Aristotle called eudamonia – human flourishing.

There is no reason for children to be excluded from developing their abilities as “political animals”. If we keep them out of politics, we deprive them of their right to speak – even about issues that make us uncomfortable.

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