New platform gets teens politically involved

Summary

Three 17-year-old friends have established a new political platform to push Flemish youth to embrace active citizenship

BPolitix complements initiatives of Flemish Parliament

With the independent platform BPolitix, three fresh-faced teenage friends are hoping to encourage fellow students to critically reflect on politics in Belgium before they cast their first votes in the May elections of next year.

The group of 17-year-olds is using social media in a major way to propagate its message, but is also planning a series of debates across Flanders next year.

BPolitix officially launched earlier this month, the brainchild of Arnaud Hoornaert, Simon Rastelli and Samuel van Bael. The three met during a session of the Model European Parliament (MEP), in which students from across the European Union act as lawmakers and brainstorm on cross-border issues, like migration, trade agreements and GMO regulations. 

According to Hoornaert, these kinds of MEP activities offer a great entry point for young people into the current political situation. But he notes that participating in the MEP is only possible for a limited number of teenagers. “When we talk to our friends, most of them don’t show much interest and also lack essential knowledge,” says Hoornaert, who lives in Loppem, West Flanders. “Many of them don’t even know the difference between the regional minister-presidents and the federal prime minister.”

Because of the importance of the next elections, which the Flemish media have dubbed “the mother of all elections”, the three friends set up a team of a dozen other young members to establish their own information platform. The group is mainly targeting final-year secondary students, many of whom will vote for the first time next year. Since most teenagers are very active on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, these are BPolitix’s main channels to reach out to Flemish youth. 

Speaking their language

The new group will distribute informative articles and editorials through its website and social media platforms. With animated videos, for instance, they will attempt to explain complex topics, like the difference between the federal and regional institutions and the main political parties. The founders say one of their goals is also to encourage young people to think about policy issues that affect their daily lives, like the upcoming major secondary education reform and the high youth unemployment rate. 

BPolitix is more embedded in the world of youth today

- Arnaud Hoornaert

But BPolitix’s ambitions extend beyond just raising awareness. By distributing digital and written surveys – so-called BPolls – on social media and in schools, they also wants to actively collect data on teenagers’ political views. They’re also hoping to organise presentations in schools and debates with local politicians on issues like mobility and sustainability.

The first such Groot Jongerendebat (Big Youth Debate) will take place in Leuven next February. BPolitix is teaming up with local youth organisations to organise it.

This makes BPolitix’s goals quite similar to those of the project De Kracht van je Stem (The Power of Your Voice/Vote), which the education committee of the Flemish Parliament has been running for a decade. “The difference is that BPolitix is more embedded in the world of youngsters today,” Hoornaert says, pointing out that the De Kracht project doesn’t use social media.

De Kracht co-ordinator Kris Van den Bremt acknowledges this criticism: “Although our website is adapted to youth of different ages, it’s true that for the moment we prefer to primarily support teachers, who bridge the gap to the students.” She says that BPolitix and their outreach on social media serves as a complement to their own work.

The Flemish Parliament’s education committee offers teachers and teachers in training tools and lesson materials to explain politics in the classroom. “Helping students to develop a sense of public responsibility is part of the compulsory education plan, but many teachers struggle to achieve this goal,” Van den Bremt says.

Flashing the red card

In addition to offering teachers classroom tools, De Kracht also invites students to the Flemish Parliament for guided visits and day-long events. These educational activities, which include mock debates, take place twice a week in the Parliament’s commission rooms. Every January, the parliament’s education committee organises “dialogue classes”, debates between Brussels and Flemish fifth- and final-year classes. The students also get a chance to talk to politicians from the different political parties.

Students can interrupt politicians by flashing a red card, like referees during football matches

- Kris Van den Bremt

In the run-up to the elections, De Kracht is hosting the first Stemmersdag, or Voters’ Day, an extra activity for final-year secondary students in March. “The main purpose is to raise the interest of students through accessible information and debate with politicians,” says Van den Bremt. “Students can interrupt politicians by flashing a red card – like referees during football matches – which means the politicians have to keep their explanation more simple.”

In February, teachers are invited to the parliament to participate in master classes and workshops focused on communicating to students how the electoral process works.

A research project commissioned by the Flemish Parliament demonstrated that the project is succeeding in its aim of increasing students’ political knowledge. In 2011, political science students at the University of Antwerp examined the impact of De Kracht and found that students’ knowledge of the political decision-making process improved after participation in the programme. 

The popular education programme also quickly “sells out”. Every year, about 3,000 students get a chance to participate in De Kracht days at the parliament. “Expanding the programme is difficult because the commission rooms are only available on Mondays and Fridays,” Van den Bremt explains, “and our evaluations prove that the location has an important added value for the experience of students.”

Citizenship education

Still, according to Marc Hooghe, professor of political sciences at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Flanders is not investing enough resources in student-tailored educational programmes like De Kracht. Van Hooghe, who is also on the De Kracht steering committee, points to the European Parliament’s permanent visitor centre as a good example of how institutions can provide extensive, week-round information.

According to the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), more intense citizenship education is needed in Flanders. Organised in 2009 by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, more than 140,000 14-year-old students in 38 countries and regions completed ICCS questionnaires. The Flemish chapter of the study was carried out by the University of Antwerp and the Free University of Brussels (VUB). Although the Flemish teenagers scored reasonably well on knowledge about and trust in political institutions, they didn’t do as well in other areas.

The ICCS poll revealed that Flemish students on average attach less importance to fundamental democratic rights and on equal opportunities than do teens from other countries. Their sense of citizenship self-efficacy and their desire to follow a television debate about a controversial issue, for example, is low. The same is true of their willingness to participate in legal protests. 

A stark gap

Hooghe, who heads the specialised Centre for Citizenship and Democracy at KU Leuven, is more optimistic about the knowledge and involvement of Flemish teenagers. In a recent study conducted by the centre, 73% of secondary school students passed a test on political knowledge.

Adolescence is an essential period in the development of political interest

- Marc Hooghe

Still, the difference between the high scores of general humanities students (ASO) and the low ones of those in professional education (BSO) was remarkable. When they measured the political interest of the teenagers, the Leuven researchers also found that ASO students performed twice as well as the BSO students.

“This gap between ASO and BSO is very concerning,” says Hooghe. “It’s important that we don’t create a society with population groups that seem to be living in different worlds.” Hooghe hopes the new BPolitix platform will help but feels that additional initiatives will be necessary.

He points to a recent report from the Flemish Youth Council, the Flemish Government’s official advisory body for youth-related matters. One of the suggestions the council made was the introduction of a separate course on social and political education. “If you adjust the level of the course to the different levels of general and professional education, this could be a very useful addition to the curriculum,” Hooghe says. Another focus should be to increase the media literacy of professional education students.

The KU Leuven centre’s research also emphasises the importance of improving citizenship education in schools. “We find that, just like for many other aspects, adolescence is an essential period in the development of political interest,” Hooghe explains. “If you are not stimulated as a teenager, you are not very likely to become a politically involved adult.”

www.bpolitix.be

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Government of Flanders

Belgium is a federal state with several regional governments. The northern, Dutch-speaking region of Flanders is governed by the Flemish government, which was created when the Flemish Region and the Flemish Community joined forces in 1980. A minister-president presides over the government of Flanders, and Brussels is the capital city.
Competences - The government of Flanders is responsible for the economy, foreign trade, health care, energy, housing, agriculture, environmental concerns, public works and transport, employment policy, culture, education and science and innovation. Flanders also has the power to sign international treaties in these competencies.
Sole legislator - The powers of the Flemish government and of the federal government do not overlap. Therefore, only one government serves as legislator for each policy area. Flemish laws are called decrees. Decrees apply in co-ordination with federal laws.
Official holiday - 11 July is the official holiday of the Flemish Community, in commemoration of the Battle of the Golden Spurs in Kortrijk on 11 July 1302, when Flemings defeated the army of the French king. Flanders’ official anthem is “De Vlaamse Leeuw” (The Flemish Lion).
6

million people live in the Flemish Region.

5

provinces constitute the Flemish Region: West Flanders, East Flanders, Flemish Brabant, Antwerp and Limburg.

5

number of years for which the Flemish Parliament is elected. Its elections coincide with those of the European Parliament.