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 Change.org 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.