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There is a common assumption that teenagers are disinterested in political issues and perceive them as dull and irrelevant to their lives. An innovative project run by Parliament’s Education Service collaborating with Radiowaves, the free social media network for schools, is challenging that assumption and shows how young people can engage with politics.

Here, Cliff Manning, communications director of Radiowaves discusses this project and explores the importance of reaching young people in a way that appeals in order to engage them in issues such as politics and law-making.

Innovative collaborations

The “Lights, Camera, Parliament” project created by the Parliament’s Education Service is a unique, student centred project which asked learners aged 11-16 to think about laws they would like to see introduced. Ten schools from Bristol, Dorchester and London participated. After learning about how laws are made and come in to force they decided on their own ideas for laws and then created film clips about their law and posted them on the Radiowaves website. Following this, young people across the country were then invited to vote on the videos, as well as discuss them. The outcome was phenomenal, with hundreds of young people immersing themselves in the project, wanting to communicate their ideas and opinions. The students behind the best films were then invited to the Houses of Parliament to a Winners’ Day, to celebrate their achievements and to discuss their films and ideas with a distinguished panel of judges including Member of the House of Lords and film producer, Lord Puttnam.

Designed to get students thinking about law-making and Parliament, it also encouraged creativity in learners through the use of film and web technologies.

Tom O’Leary, Head of Parliament’s Education Service discussed the project: “Parliament’s Education Service is continually looking for new and exciting ways to engage young people with democracy and Parliament. Radiowaves has provided us an excellent space to do this, by allowing young people to have a voice and express themselves creatively in a safe environment.”

The proposed laws were innovative and insightful, revealing concerns relating to various key issues, including a law to house all homeless people and support them to find work, as well as a zero tolerance policy designed to create a more harmonious and fair society. The winning law was created by students from Bristol Metropolitan Academy, who campaigned for a ban on smoking in public places; something we might not traditionally predict teenagers would campaign for.

Kerisha Stephenson, 13, was in the winning group and explained: “We decided to make a law called, ‘Young children copy – ban smoking in public places,’ because smoking in public sets a bad example to young people and we thought this would make an interesting video.”

After being presented with the laws and speaking with the students behind them, Lord Puttnam commented: “The laws we’ve seen today have been imaginative. It really surprised me that kids would want to push the smoking ban that much further. Not only was it a good law, and well explained, but the students’ film was also very imaginative.”  

Participation in the process
With the recent election, politics was a natural topic of debate amongst the Radiowaves community of under-nineteens. With the minimum voting age currently at 18 within the UK, it is maybe tempting to overlook younger students, yet it is short-sighted to assume that those below the legal voting age are not interested in or motivated by politics. The real problem is that young people are not communicated to in a way that makes them feel involved.

Radiowaves was created to provide young people with a voice and the means to be heard. The focus is on them being able to contribute in a practical project-based way. Inviting students to respond and become involved in an issue delivers meaning, showing that politics is not just about middle-aged men in suits, with which they simply cannot relate. It is about people who want to make a change. Young people need to realise that they are the future law makers; it is their world and they can shape it. Offering an understanding of how systems work and why they exist empowers them to make their own judgements.

Thoughtful and creative
The ideas put forward for the “Lights...Camera...Parliament” project were mature and well-thought out, revealing that although we may not typically hear these opinions voiced from young people, this does not mean they do not exist. The issue identified is that the medium used to reach young people is not usually relevant which is where the challenge lies.

Lord Puttnam commented on the effectiveness of the “Lights...Camera...Parliament” project and what it strives to achieve: “A better understanding of democracy and the way Parliament’s decisions affect our lives has never been more important. Here is a brilliant new initiative designed to have exactly this effect.”

The role of social media

So why choose social media as the medium for a project? With social media now an inherent part of everyday life for many young people, how better to engage and motivate them in important issues than via this medium? With social networking, blogging and podcasting, students can take part in democracy in a way that is meaningful and inclusive for them.

Radiowaves is specifically designed for educational purposes; it enables students and teachers to get the benefits of social media such as sharing and connecting with others whilst providing a safe environment to develop their skills and understanding.

The web presents many opportunities but also has its risks which, as adults, we have a duty to protect young people from. In an increasingly web driven society, it is important students have strong digital literacy and critical skills and we should therefore strive to equip them with these, whilst also remembering that safety is paramount. 

Radiowaves is designed to support teachers as well as learners; one of the first steps towards empowering children is actually making sure that teachers are facilitated in their role as well, since teachers play a hugely significant part in this. Making sure that educators feel comfortable with technology and understanding their needs is our aim, we even include them in the design process as much as possible to fully involve them. Another aim is to connect teachers; schools are often too isolated and we wanted teachers to gain an insight into how other teachers work. Educators need to feel supported and of course, as with anything in life, it is reassuring to know how others work.

In the future social media will become an increasingly integral element within daily school life. As current innovations become mainstream, schools will need to adapt to the new generations of teachers who are increasingly technology savvy. Teachers should be able to obtain relevant Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to keep their skills fresh and up-to-date in this area.

Active involvement results in engagement

Some learners find it stale and somewhat tedious to learn about political issues within the curriculum. However, through social media projects like this film competition from Parliament’s Education Service, young people can engage with the material in a personalised way, become part of a community and feel their contributions are valued.

Kerisha discussed her experience with the project: “We had an amazing day at the Houses of Parliament. Meeting Lord Puttnam was the icing on the cake; we’d all seen Bugsy Malone so it was inspiring to meet the person who made it. We were over the moon to beat the five other groups and talked about our win all the way home! This project has taught us so much, including how to work together and that, if we try, we can achieve a lot of good and succeed. Using Radiowaves to connect with so many other students really made the experience come alive.”

Embracing technology for empowerment

In today’s society, young people are increasingly tech savvy. Through offering a safe and user-friendly social networking platform, we are able to empower and encourage them to become involved in important and key issues such as democracy. It is encouraging to see the students gain the confidence to form well-developed opinions relating to often complex issues. However, because these topics are presented in a way that encourages them to debate, comment, make videos and generally establish a voice, they can fully immerse themselves and feel they are part of something that really matters. 

Radiowaves is the leading, free-of-charge social networking platform for education. www. radiowaves.co.uk