A school that gets students’ vote

During breaks from lessons, students at Kiiminki Upper Secondary School in Oulu are usually glued to their mobile phones, posting Instagram stories or laughing together at TikTok videos. But last spring teachers noticed a change. And it made them very happy.

“I realised that groups of students were, instead, actively discussing current political issues and things like the war in Ukraine,” says Teacher Anna Kalliokoski.

“This made me so proud of them, in fact I almost cried to see it because it’s so rare. I am sure the activities we had been doing to spark their interest in politics had something to do with it!”

These activities were part of Oulu’s School of Politics for Young People, a pioneering initiative Kalliokoski and her colleagues had been very keen to get involved with.

“Studying politics prepares students for adult life, helping them realise how it affects every aspect of their lives, from the price of food to how healthcare is run and whether their neighbourhood has a skatepark” says Teacher Outi Kukkonen.

“It is important students don’t see politics as something just for older people in suits on television but that they themselves also have an opportunity to get involved and change things.”

Young people are key to strengthening democracy

At a time when democracy is deemed to be in decline and its values more vital than ever, many European cities have been making citizen participation a priority. It is young people, however, who are most dissatisfied with the performance of democracy according to much recent research – and who hold the key to its future.

The city of Oulu has long been committed to making sure the voices of young people are heard on issues that affect them, through its Youth Council and many participation groups. The impetus to take its support a crucial step further, and directly into schools, came from the Democracy Trials 2020 initiative of the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra.

Set up to stimulate innovative, democracy-enhancing ways of getting population groups in danger of being excluded from politics actively involved, this initiative encouraged and enabled Oulu to develop its new democracy education project.

“Some queried the name of the project, asking if we meant all our young people to become politicians, but of course that’s not the point,” says Noora Mäkinen, Participation Coordinator for Oulu’s Youth Services.

We want young people to realise you don't need to be a professional politician to have your voice heard
— Noora Mäkinen, Participation Coordinator, Youth Services, Oulu

“We wanted the school to be about discussing what politics means, understanding that you don’t need to be a politician to have your voice heard and giving students the knowledge and skills to be able to make a difference in their city and community.”

Co-creating a new kind of political education

The school was launched as a year-long project in five pilot schools in February 2020, with a budget of €158,000 from the city and Sitra. It had three main ambitions:

  • To open students’ eyes to how society works and how they can influence it.
  • To design and try out new ways of promoting participation and empowerment among young people.
  • And to develop new ways for the older and younger generations to interact and learn from one another.

This two-way dialogue started early on in the process, with young people and municipal officials planning the school’s curriculum and activities together. And it continued throughout, with students encouraged to come up with solutions to improve life in the city and the city to consider how it might respond more systematically to young people’s views and ideas.

We believe in the power of knowledge and that having the right tools and knowing how to use them makes such a difference in life
— Anna Kalliokoski, Teacher, Kiiminki Upper Secondary School

Seeing politics from a personal perspective

The School of Politics for Young People comes alive for 13 to 18-year olds through activities run in classes and team-based learning sessions by their teachers and youth workers using materials co-created with the city’s education and youth services departments.

In a series of three workshops, thought-provoking discussions, challenges, team exercises and art are used to help students explore what they can influence in their home, school, neighbourhood or city and the different ways they can go about this.

Finally, students mould their reflections into specific issues they would like to contribute to, either in their own environment or on an ideological level, such as equality. They then learn how to put their proposal to the right people in the right way.

“We had 90 students in the gym when we did this workshop and it was very inspiring listening to their ideas,” says Kalliokoski. “What the city people did so well was to start at the practical level rather than talking about big, serious matters. They just wanted students to notice that even if what they want is, say, more outdoor exercise places, that’s politics.”

Getting a glimpse into how the city works

The School of Politics for Young People also brings different generations closer by arranging for city and youth councillors to go into schools. Here they talk with students about the many ways they can have a say on issues that matter to them, what the Youth Council does and how the city’s decision-making process works.

While the Covid19 restrictions that started just a month after the school’s launch meant many of these meetings had to be virtual, they still managed to make their mark.

When a former member of Finland’s parliament now working in Oulu came to talk to her students, Kukkonen was impressed with the impact she made. “She was very down to earth and gave concrete examples of the decisions politicians have taken to enhance life in the city, such as developing a riverside area for running, walking and cycling.”

Workshops encourage children to think how they can have a voice in their city
Politicians go into schools to show they're ordinary people who want to make a difference
School children are asked what they'd like to improve in their school or neighbourhood

Making a difference – for the long term

By the end of the school’s first year, it had run 17 workshops and reached 379 students and 35 teachers and youth workers. Eight school visits had taken place involving 633 students and 40 teachers.

The city had also started adopting new participation approaches to make sure young people’s perspectives and suggestions are consistently considered in its decision-making.

“A lot of ideas and thoughts were received from young people during the project and real efforts have been made to develop opportunities for young people to influence the municipality,” says 21-year old Kalle Pyky who was involved in the school as Chair of Oulu’s Youth Council and the project’s steering group.

The project was able to create new operating models for involving young people in Oulu
— Kalle Pyky, Chair, Oulu Youth Council

The city is also set to benefit from a growing cohort of politically-aware, actively-engaged young people as the school itself is set to continue. And there’s more.

Insights from the pilot schools on the practices they tested have been collected to help develop an online Democracy Education Tool Box. This is now integrated into the everyday work of the city’s youth services, participation groups and schools.

The project team has also published a Make a Difference guidebook for these organisations which works well as a conversation starter in group sessions. A popular Instagram account of the same name will also continue, posting simple, effective ideas and useful contacts.

Sowing the seeds of empowerment

While Mäkinen has been delighted to hear students say the school made them realise making a difference isn’t as complicated as they’d thought, “which is the main thing we wanted to show,” everyone involved has been pleased to hear of some students who have taken things further.

“One of our students was very interested in the School of Politics and began to think she might like to do something in politics in the future,” says Kukkonen. “She has already been elected to our local Youth Council and is very active there.”

Who knows, maybe this student will return to her old school one day and inspire the next generation by showing that, as Mäkinen says, “ooliticians are just ordinary people who want to make their city a better place.”

Cities dream, act and lead our future. This example from Oulu is one of the finalists for the Eurocities Awards, in the category ‘Dream together – future generations transforming the cities’. The winners will be announced on 9 June 2022 during the Eurocities Conference.

Tiphanie Mellor