Councils bar ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns from schools

The official referendum campaigns are being barred from the majority of schools in Scotland ahead of polling day, BBC research has found.

Twenty-seven of the country’s 32 councils will restrict access to Yes Scotland and Better Together.

However, most councils said pupils would be able to talk about the referendum in school.

For the first time in the UK, 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland – the majority of whom attend high school – can vote.

The findings come on the first day of “purdah” which curbs what public bodies can do during election periods.

In the lead up to the referendum on 18 September, governments and local authorities are restricted on what new projects they can announce and legislate on, for fear of influencing the way people vote.

Many councils north of the border are applying those “purdah” rules to referendum debate activities in schools.

In four weeks time, Scotland’s electorate will be asked the “Yes/No” question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The BBC Scotland research found the majority of local authorities had chosen to limit access to campaign groups in the coming weeks, and were strictly adhering to guidelines outlined in the Referendum Act.

Five councils – Aberdeenshire, East Ayrshire, Orkney, Shetland Islands, and Western Isles – said they would allow the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns access to their students during this 28-day period.

Public bodies

Electoral Commission guidelines stipulate what materials may not be published by public bodies, but they do not specifically address whether campaigns can visit schools and interact with pupils ahead of polling day.

An Electoral Commission spokesman told BBC Scotland it was up to each local authority to decide how to approach the pre-referendum period.

Orkney Council, which has not barred Yes Scotland and Better Together, stressed that any activity on school premises would need to be balanced in the countdown to polling day.

A statement said: “In the interests of even-handedness, both sides of the debate would have to be involved in any such visit.

“This would also have to take place outside class time and would have to be short.”

The Better Together campaign questioned the approach by many councils to limit access to schools.

A statement from the group said: “The decision we take on 18 September will determine the future of Scotland’s young people, so it’s vital that those with the vote get to hear all of the facts and the arguments.

“For young Scots the idea of creating barriers and limiting their opportunities makes no sense.”

A spokesman for Yes Scotland said the issue of schools hosting referendum debates was a matter “for local councils to administer”.

He added: “Yes Scotland is always happy to accept invitations to debate.”

Many councils said that while the two campaigns would not be allowed into schools now, they had attended school debates earlier in the year.

Falkirk Council agreed upon a policy with head teachers that each secondary school should hold a referendum presentation between February and June, attended by two members from each campaign.

Tony McDaid, head of education at South Lanarkshire Council, said: “Over 500 young people from schools throughout South Lanarkshire took part in a debate on independence at Hamilton Town House in June.

“Representatives from the Yes and No campaign pitched their points to the audience of 16 and 17 year olds.”

Last year all councils were issued with a joint briefing from key organisations including: The Association of Directors in Education Scotland; Education Scotland, and the Electoral Commission.

The briefing encouraged councils to ensure young adults were: Registered to vote; were aware of how to vote on polling day; understood the key referendum issues, and were made aware of other online resources.

At the start of 2014, all councils were issued with Education Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence briefing which informed teachers how to promote political literacy ahead of the referendum.

The BBC Scotland research found that six councils – Angus, Dundee, Highland, Moray, North Ayrshire, and Shetland Islands – were placing the heaviest restrictions on their schools during the “purdah” period.

No school debates

In guidance notes issued to its schools, Angus Council stated: “Individual school mock hustings must be held prior to the pre-referendum period and in the course of session 2013 / 2014.”

Similarly, a spokesman for Dundee council said: “We have organised a central referendum debate through the Dundee Youth Council which has already been held and all secondary schools were involved.

“We have agreed that there will be no individual school debates over and above this.”

The remaining councils stipulated that while school debates were not permissible, general classroom discussion related to the referendum would be allowed.