England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance, Education and children's services

How Kirklees Council’s pioneering Democracy Friendly Schools programme is inspiring young people to get involved in local democracy


Spring Grove School - pupils with questions for Newsome ward councillors

Learning from our young citizens

Young people told the Democracy Commission that they felt overlooked – they were always “in the background” and often “invisible” to decision makers. Youth Council members said what they wanted most was for councillors to “make time for us in some way”, to meet with them, talk and listen. In response to the Commission’s learning, Kirklees Council made a commitment to help young citizens be interested and engaged in local democracy.

We supported a group of young people to become Young Commissioners, responsible for learning more about what would help children and young people to get involved. Over 1,700 young citizens shared their thoughts about having a voice, getting involved in community life, and how we can help them to grow the skills, confidence and connections that they want, in the way that they want.

Together we learned that young people of all ages do want to be involved. They want flexible ways of doing this – from quick activities to developing their own social action projects. They want their contributions to be recognised and celebrated. They want to get to know and trust people who can help them to make the changes they want. And the place where they feel safest doing all of this is in school.

One of our young participants said: “I want democracy to be a normal part of growing up, for every young person – within families, within schools, democracy should be normal.”

Democracy Friendly Schools

The Democracy Friendly Schools programme is breaking down barriers to democratic engagement by improving the confidence and learning of whole school communities, starting by redefining what democracy is. We’ve created a special video animation – Democracy happens where you are – in which we clearly put citizens at the heart of democracy. This encourages thinking about what local democracy really is, who does it and where it happens. The animation has been particularly important for our schools programme, setting expectations from a young age that democracy is about you.

We provide ‘Train the Trainer’ sessions for teachers, a menu of Everyday Democracy Activities for all schools, and a two-day ‘Introduction to Local Democracy’ training programme for high schools. Each school chooses how the programme will work best for them, with all schools achieving the same five criteria overall: Learning about local democracy, Exploring your local place, Having a voice in your school and community, Connecting with your councillors & Doing democracy in your place.

This flexible and engaging approach, based on what young citizens wanted, is proving hugely popular. 70% of high schools in Kirklees are already signed up to the programme, 20% of primary schools and 100% of special schools, plus some madrasas and specialist settings. We’re also using our Democracy Friendly resources to support learning for community organisations, workplaces and colleges.

The first schools received their Democracy Friendly Awards in October 2022.

How young citizens are getting involved

Here are just a few examples of how young people have benefitted from taking part:

  • Learning in Early Years
    Gomersal St. Mary’s CE(C) Primary were the first school to become Democracy Friendly. They adapted our activities for their Early Years setting. Together the children explored their school and created a plan to make their classroom a better place to learn. Children in Year 5 explored further afield: “We wrote to our Councillor, we zoomed him, we tweeted him… and we agreed on a local project.”
  • Working with local councillors
    Young people have been able to learn about what councillors do and meet with their councillors to talk about things they’d like to change in their local area. Pupils from Gomersal Primary wrote letters to one of their councillors then met with him in school. Spring Grove pupils took part in a Council meeting to share their worries about traffic issues around their school, then worked with the council to instal child-shaped bollards to improve safety.
  • Growing skills and confidence
    Fairfield School provides a learning experience for students aged 4 to 19 who have a wide range of complex needs. Five participants were recognised for their excellent leadership skills and have become Kirklees Youth Councillors. They have helped other pupils to learn about democracy and connected with youth councillors in a mainstream local school. Fairfield also received recognition from the Mayor of Kirklees for being the first Democracy Friendly special school.
  • Joining the Notwestminster community
    Young people from participating high schools take part in the annual Notwestminster gathering in Huddersfield. Notwestminster is a community of people from across the UK who have something positive to say about local democracy and who take action to make democracy better in their own local place. In 2022, students from Newsome Academy co-hosted a Notwestminster workshop about Rethinking Climate Action with Young People. Peter, a Youth Councillor, gave a Lightning Talk about the school’s Democracy Friendly journey, including their social action project to create a community wildlife space in the school grounds. Through a connection made at Notwestminster, they have since participated in Trust The People online workshops to share their story. For the 2023 event, on the theme of Trust, students from participating schools contributed their thoughts about what helps to create trust. The Democracy Friendly programme’s work to build trust was also showcased in a Lightning Talk by Michelle Ross.

Before this programme, only 15% of young people in Kirklees felt they were being taught what they needed to know about democracy in school – and teachers were fearful about potentially influencing young people’s political views. 100% of our accredited schools say the programme has helped young people to learn about democracy and to make a difference to their community. This is what one participating teacher said when asked whether it’s worthwhile for children to get involved:

“When I first started leading the project, the children thought democracy was something ‘done in London’. They are now aware that this is something that happens every day, something they are a valuable part of.”

Find out more

Website: Democracy Friendly Schools
Twitter: @KirkleesYC & @kirkdemocracy

Diane Sims is Engagement and Communications Lead for Democracy and Place Based Working at Kirklees Council, and Co-organiser of Notwestminster.


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