I grew up idolising the classroom politicians I saw in films and television shows because they reflected my own interests. I did not grow up watching many news programmes, reading many newspapers, attending protests, or learning about political agendas. In my mainstream viewing habits, though, these characters embodied leadership in a way that actually seemed attainable to young viewers like me — because they were still in education.

They were not CEOs of big businesses, superstars or elected members of government. They were fighting for causes they cared about and campaigning to their peers in an environment young people could recognise and apply to their own lives. Above all, they were role models for how to behave diplomatically and how not to take ‘no’ for an answer while all packaged up wearing cute outfits and delivering iconic soundbites.

Politics With a Small ‘p’

In Western popular culture, Rory and Paris in Gilmore Girls demonstrate this trope. I vividly remember Paris Geller’s lines: ‘snack cakes will not change the world’ and ‘cream filling will not decide our legacy,’ delivered with such gumption at the Student Body President Forum. The emphasis on these lines draws out the seemingly trivial nature of these discussions, often far removed from the outside world. But it reminds me so much of the real-life student council meetings where we spent discussing, in what felt like a never-ending amount of time, our school dinner menus.

In writing this piece I have conducted some research and discovered that the UNCRC states that young people should ‘have a say in decisions that affect their lives.’ In their formative years of compulsory education, if children ought to have a say about decisions that ‘affect their lives,’ then clearly the place where they spend so many hours of their day (school), is key to getting their voices heard and developed (including voicing concerns about what they eat at lunchtime!).

In these fictional stories, but also in the reality I experienced, the playground becomes a parody of all the theatrics we associate with election season and all the usual cast members are on stage. The Comedian puts themselves forward to implement a ‘Fridays off’ policy and the Athlete puts themselves forward to implement a ‘bigger sports hall’ policy. I was probably the Nerd, who put herself forward to implement a ‘more extra-curricular activities’ policy in primary school.

I remember going home and using my Badge It! machine to make multicoloured badges saying ‘Vote for Tiegan.’ With thanks to the school crafts cupboard, I also hand-drew posters with manifesto bullet points and made slogan signs in 2000s bubble writing that I stuck onto wooden sticks. Seemingly innocent campaigns like this taught me how to express my views to others; think creatively about making positive changes for people; become resilient to rejection; and influence thinking. As part of young people’s journey to become full citizens, politics with a small ‘p’ is an essential bump in the road.

These elections allow children to decipher whether they are leaders, supporters, opposers, and ultimately, whether they are interested or not in positions of power. Of course, there are complexities to this. Different schools have different resources available which has an impact. However, for those who do attend schools with student councils, this is their first opportunity to democratically use their voice to bring change before they walk up to the ballot box in adulthood and do this once again on a greater scale.

Fiction for Life Lessons

Fictional characters often perpetuate stereotypes that exist in our consciousness. In fact, it is easy for us to imagine which classmates would have fallen into which category. They also help reinforce the notion that every institution is ‘political.’ Scriptwriters feel it is pertinent to include student councils in fictional settings, arguably because of what they symbolise in collective thought and because of what they add to narratives and character arcs. These classroom politicians are either celebrated or pitied by their peers-come-constituents, depending on whether they possess the right charisma or gravitas, which mirrors the political world.

Going back to Gilmore Girls, Paris was aware of her position in the socio-political hierarchy at Chilton. In the polls, she was voted the ‘most competent’ but not the ‘most likeable’ candidate …, so she chose Rory as her Vice President to boost the likelihood of a win. I can think of many times when a similar tactic has been used in non-fictional government elections. The significance given to a prime minister’s potential chancellor of the exchequer during campaigns is a case in point.

At the time of putting myself forward for school council, aged 7-15; for Sixth-Form committee, aged 16-18; through to my university’s student council, aged 20-23, I did not realise how these positions of responsibility all built upon each other. With hindsight, I now understand the positive impact these opportunities have had on me. The girl who spoke in smelly assembly halls has now given a speech in Parliament. From my perspective, student council really can produce adults committed to making a difference beyond the school gates.

I wonder how many more young people would engage in democracy and register to vote if they all grew up with an equal opportunity to fully understand the power of voting from a younger age?

By Tiegan Bingham-Roberts

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