Political power should begin in the classroom. Photo: Getty
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Voters can be misinformed by the media - it's time for basic political education in schools

It's time we taught children to learn to cut through media misinformation about politics.

Can you remember when it was exactly that you learned about the House of Lords?

As a question, it’s no “where were you when Princess Diana died?” but bear with me. Despite its tedious nature, it’s an important question to ask, because I’d wager that a fairly large proportion of adults in Britain never learned about the House of Lords at all. I’m not just talking about knowledge of the House of Lords’ existence (with such camp wigs and capes how could you miss it?) but also why it exists, what its function is, and how it relates to the House of Commons. How many people, I wonder, are taught any of that as part of their state secondary school education?

When it comes to examining our political structures, the aforementioned tedium is part of the problem. Like many people, my brain appears to have an automatic “wandering off” switch whenever I am exposed to anything that reaches a certain shade of greige. Whack a complex piece of political analysis in front of me and I’ll almost certainly start mentally humming an early Madonna track or thinking about carbohydrates. In fact, if you substitute early Madonna for “whatever auto-tuned toss that’s charting these days, played through a tinny mobile phone speaker”, then I’m not so different from your average schoolchild.

As a journalist, the fact I find mainstream politics intolerably dull is something I fight against every day. And it’s exacerbated, of course, by the feeling that politicians represent the privileged few and have no interest in confronting the problems that so many people of my generation are facing: the housing crisis, low and unskilled work, unemployment and benefits cuts, student debt, environmental Armageddon, Boris (I could go on). If you combine these feelings of disaffection with an unavoidable political bore factor, then you begin to wonder how on earth adults who feel this way should go about teaching politics to children.

Yet following the general election campaign, a new petition is suggesting that we do just that, by making “basic political education” part of the national curriculum. According to Katie and Tara, the founders of the petition:

There is still a large majority of young people out there who do not hold a basic knowledge of the political system and are vastly disengaged. We have witnessed some people stating they were voting in this election but didn't know why and nor did they understand what they were voting for; some admitting that they were voting but didn't know what manifestos and policies were, the difference between a PM and MP, nor what left and right wing meant.

This didn’t surprise me for a second. I don’t know how it could surprise anyone who went through the state education system (I don’t know about private schools, I didn’t go to one, but I’m assuming they brief you thoroughly on all the institutions you’re likely to end up in one day).

Were I Prime Minister, there are many things that I would add to the national curriculum, including, in no particular order: sex and relationships education that covers abuse, consent, and where to get the morning-after pill on a Sunday; money management classes with particular focus on the ins and outs of a consumer credit agreement; media criticism classes that equip pupils with the tools to critically analyse the media they are presented with; shitloads more art, drama, music and important creative exploration; important books that Michael Gove got rid of despite the fact that they teach children about the importance of kindness and not being a prejudiced bigot (To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men) and finally: politics.

Politics classes would teach pupils about the structures of power and how they benefit or disadvantage people in society. It would teach them how to participate in the democratic process (and just as importantly, why they should). It would not be partisan, but it should provide young people with the information they need to make an informed decision when they are standing in that polling booth (which they will be doing, because voting will be compulsory).

Political education should start young, before they have the chance to become bored, cynical, disaffected adults like myself, and at an age when teachers are still able to capitalise on young people’s enthusiasm and excitement at the thought of having a say in the world. I think I was about 17 when I was taught at school what the House of Commons and the House of Lords actually did, which is around the same time that I learned about how First Past The Post works. It was only because I did Law A-Level. We did a bit about politics in History but not as much as we did about medieval crop rotation, which means that most people leaving my school did so without any formal basic political education whatsoever.

Of course, many people make up by simply voting as their parents voted or by gleaning what they can from the media. Because of the election result, it’s now fashionable to understate the role that media plays in people’s perceptions of the world, but let’s be honest here: the media is the reason people think the Human Rights Act confers a human right to Kentucky Fried Chicken for burglars. If my personal anecdotes formed from sitting around enough tables with God knows enough Daily Mail readers aren’t sufficient (“I’m not sure how I feel about all this human rights business” – direct quote), then you don’t have to listen to me. Just look at this survey from 2013 that confirms British people are wrong about nearly everything.

Do I think that the electorate is stupid? No, I do not. But I have met enough people who take everything newspapers say at face value to know that many people are misinformed. Couple this with an education system that fails to prioritise analytical skills or inform us, even in a rudimentary fashion, about the organs of the state, and is it any wonder politics looks the way it does?

Those in power either took it upon themselves to do one hell of a lot of background reading, are total politics geeks, or come from schools and families where a career in politics was historically expected of you. The fact that, as a country, we fail to educate our children about how they can go about participating in democracy is perhaps the biggest political scandal of all. Because if all children had a right to a basic political education, then we would not only be likely to see more engagement, more scrutiny of policies, more examination of the facts, but we’d also see more public dissatisfaction with our current politics, and even anger with the status quo. Indeed, when you think about it, it’s probably why they don’t have that right. But it’s exactly why they should.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.