Analysing elections: an exercise with Year 6

I once did an “election” with a Year 6 class during General Election week.  (It was part of “How can we keep the children engaged in learning after SATs?”)  

I divided the class into four parties who chose colours to define themselves: Blue, Silver, Purple and Green.

They spent a week writing manifestos, designing posters, making ballot boxes and preparing speeches.  Each party could make school based promises though they had to be somewhere in the realms of deliverability: no uniform, pony riding as part of P.E. and ice cream on Fridays were all allowed but not weekly trips to Legoland or your own flying horse.  The promises were drawn up independently but inevitably there was some overlap: no homework was popular! (We did make it clear to the younger children that this was “all pretend”!)

On Thursday morning each team member had to make a speech on behalf of their party in one of the other classes.  (“Think about your audience,” I told them, looking at the Literacy tick boxes.  “There’s no point in making a really complicated speech to the children in Reception.”)

In the afternoon, the school secretly voted with election officers, counters, and specially painted black boxes and at lunchtime I took the Year 6 children in small groups to look through the door of the real polling station next door. The returning officers went round to each class to declare the result and the winning team went on a victory tour to thank their voters.

On Friday we analysed the results: why did the children in the other classes vote the way they did – and why do adults vote the way they do?

One team hit the ground running.  It was the team with the most obviously charismatic leader and by break time on Monday his team were out in the playground asking the younger children to vote for them (bribes were strictly forbidden). 

“It’s not fair,” cried the others (no surprises there!)  

In the end I had to put some restrictions in place as the other teachers reported that the younger children wanted to be able to play, without being pressured for their vote. Interestingly, this team was starting to run out of energy by Thursday; there is a limit to how often you can talk about voting during break.  (They did not win.)

Another team took the entire first session to choose their colour.  This team had no obvious leader; the child I had expected to take the lead was not feeling well and did not take much part in the discussions.  There were no personality clashes (I had arranged the teams very carefully!) but there was no one prepared to make decisions and little enthusiasm, and this was reflected at the ballot box.

The winning team (Purple) trailed in three classes but won because of the overwhelming vote in the Year 1/Year 2 class (six and seven year olds).

On Friday we discussed why people voted the way they did (children in this election, adults in the General Election). 

As this was the first election there were no historical reasons for voting – no one voted Silver because their grandfathers and grandmothers had voted Silver. (We did not think to look at how siblings voted but we should have done – if your sister was the leader of the Green party did this make you more or less likely to vote Green?)  

But we did identify other emotional reasons for voting: perhaps some children liked the colour (voters who identify with a party but have no real idea what they stand for), or one of the team had been especially kind to them (things had changed for the voter because of action taken by the party either on their behalf or generally.)

We looked at the role of the charismatic leader (without getting too personal!) Did some children vote Blue because they knew who Andy actually was (football Captain, leading role in the school play, prepared to speak up in assembly)?

One thing quickly became very obvious: The length of the manifesto made no difference – or if it did it was a negative one.  The teams that had written ten promises did no better than the ones who had written five – and generally worse. 

I confessed to the children that I had not read the entire manifesto for any of the political parties.  I was pretty sure, I told them, that the number of people who read the entire manifesto was very small and the ones who used the entire manifesto in deciding how to vote even smaller.  The number of things that even adults can think deeply about at any one time is very small – four or five at the most.  Often there is one key issue that stands out.  (At that time, twenty years ago, I used to focus mostly on education as this was the issue I knew most about.  Now, I look first to a party’s stand on the climate emergency).

None of the promises related to the world outside school.  Several children in the class were involved in raising money for charities, often on their own initiative but this did not figure in any of the manifestos.  Most of the promises would have benefited the children in the short term rather than the long term.  I think this was due more to the way in which I had set the parameters, rather than the way in which the children viewed the world.  Children’s prayers often reflect a real concern for those who are hungry, refugees or are affected by natural disasters and many look for ways to help. (Recently, for example several children have grown their hair for the Little Princess Trust for cancer sufferers.)

So why did Purple win and why did they win because of this one particular class?  Thomas, the child who gave the manifesto speech, was a quiet boy, not at all charismatic and did not usually have much to do with the younger children. We were all surprised at the impact he had made.

Thomas kept his speech brief and to the point.  I think he focussed on only one election promise (free ice creams on Fridays) but he had made a poster with a picture of an ice cream which he held up at the crucial moment to add emphasis to his speech.  Perhaps when the children voted they remembered the ice cream, when they had forgotten the more abstract promises of the other teams.   

The analysis was fascinating, the class often giving me suggestions for things that I had not thought about.  I think now, looking at Thomas’s success that he was simply the right person at the right time. (Would his ice cream promise have been so successful in the winter term?) 

Interestingly, of all the promises made that long ago summer this is the one that was actually delivered. Before the pandemic the PTFA (who knew nothing of Thomas, the Purple team and their promises) used to give out ice pops to every child on Fridays at the end of school…