Throughout the last couple of weeks Bennett students have been involved in heated political debate, which culminated on Thursday in them casting their votes in the Bennett Model General Election. Over a series of assemblies sixth form students stood at hustings, each representing one of the main political parties presenting their political programme with considerable vigour. Moreover in the week before the half term break we were delighted and privileged to host each of the main candidates for the Tunbridge Wells constituency. I am pleased to report that the candidates were vigorously grilled by students on issues ranging from their policy regarding grammar schools, to defence spending, tuition fees and mental health services. Far from the stereotype of young people being disengaged and disaffected by politics, we witnessed a real groundswell of interest right across the school. Psephologists might be interested that the outcome of our model election, a win for the Labour candidate for the first time in my memory of conducting such things at Bennett, hinted at the unexpected shift in the national polls.
Clearly the most important outcome of what I have described above is the extent to which our students became involved in political discussion and debate. This is vital for democracy. It runs counter to the pessimistic narrative of alienation that we have heard all too often from some celebrity figures.
After all our democratic institutions and privileges have been very hard won. This June marks the two hundredth anniversary of the so-called Pentrich Rising, in which a group of about 300 desperate unemployed stocking weavers and iron workers from Derbyshire marched towards Nottingham with a series of revolutionary demands focused upon improving their economic situation. They were led by a hothead named Jeremiah Brandreth. It was later revealed that much of what had happened had actually been orchestrated by a government agent provocateur, William Oliver. The protesters had joined the rising because they lacked any other means of political representation; they could not vote. Confronted by a small troop of soldiers the rebels were swiftly scattered and then rounded up. Brandreth and two others at the centre of the protest were put on trial for high treason, hanged and then beheaded by an axeman. They were only spared being drawn and quartered by the intervention of the Prince Regent. Public disgust towards this episode and the government’s handling of protest in Manchester two years later, the so-called Peterloo massacre, was an important element in generating the reform movement which eventually led to wider enfranchisement of both men and women across the course of the next century.
Educating young people about the history of their political institutions, their rights and freedoms is an important part of making them responsible and active citizens. So too is the work done at Bennett to give them the confidence, political literacy and vocabulary to engage in political debate. Right at the heart of this is the competitive debating that goes on in our assemblies from year 7 onwards. This year, we have seen debates ranging from scrapping Trident to reducing the age for voting in elections. Interestingly straw polls of our students in years 7-11 show that they are keen to see the voting age reduced, but Sixth Formers are stoutly resistant to such suggestions!
Perhaps the media’s reports of a climate of uncertainty in the country following the outcome of the General Election may give some cause for pessimism. When I look at the interested and informed involvement of our young people at Bennett in consideration of the political matters of the day, I can only see cause for hope. I am sure that Brenda in Bristol had good reasons of her own to feel frustrated at the calling of a General Election, but for us at Bennett it represented a golden opportunity to help our students see the importance of engaging in political debate and exercising political rights responsibly. In the run up to the General Election the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote to urge people to set aside “apathy and cynicism and to participate”. I am pleased to report that at Bennett there was a fulsome response.