Schools keen to encourage their pupils to take an interest in politics have been banned from holding election hustings.
Despite widespread political and educational efforts to increase the percentage of young people who vote, Stormont’s Department of Education has written to school principals to warn them against inviting election candidates to face questions on school premises.
In past elections multiple schools hosted hustings.
However, the department has cited the Primary Schools: General Regulations (NI) 1973 and the Secondary Schools (Grant Conditions) Regulations (NI) 1973 which state: “A school shall not be used for political meetings, the transaction of any political business or for any purpose connected directly or indirectly with Parliamentary, Assembly or Local Government elections except as polling booths...”
The department’s circular to school principals said that in its view that included “meetings which could be regarded as aimed at canvassing for votes for any particular political party or any particular political party election candidate”.
That is very different to the guidance issued to schools in England – which operate under different legislation – where hustings are specified as permissible as long as “reasonable steps are taken by the school to ensure that pupils are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views”.
One school principal told the News Letter: “The net result of this is probably that fewer young people will vote than if they had had the opportunity to take part – and they might never get into the habit of voting as a result.”
The prohibition on hosting political events in schools is contained within secondary legislation, meaning that the department could change it.
When asked if it would consider doing so to bring Northern Ireland into line with England and encourage young people’s interest in politics, the department said it “currently has no plans to change the regulations”.