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18 August 2016

The strange neglect of political education – and how to revive it

Citizenship classes are treated as a joke, while students can drop the social sciences age 14.

By Will Carter

This morning, 18 year olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have woken up to their A-level results. Many will now be making the final decisions about what they will study at university and where. Provided that A-level leavers have behaved in roughly the same way as they did in 2014, a tenth of newly enrolled undergraduates will go on to study, in the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s words, “Social Sciences” at university. This nebulous term presumably encompasses the study of politics and economics.

These people, (although not all) most would assume, will emerge from university with a firm grasp on the political and economic workings of our country. However, they are a minority among undergraduates, and will represent a far tinier minority of 21 one year olds generally when they come to graduate after three years.

For everyone else, we must rely on our time at school to invest us with the knowledge and skills necessary to attain a competent level of political and economic literacy. These are imperative not only for a full and meaningful participation in democratic processes but as tools to understand policies, engage with international affairs and see through spin. The last of these is particular relevant following our recent national experiences with Brexit.

Citizenship – the national joke

However, the A-level system is notoriously specialised. Politics and economics are not usually options available at GCSE-level. A student need never even study history, geography or English literature (English language is compulsory) after the age of 14, all subjects which would at least introduce them to political concepts. Equally, after the age of 16, they may drop all mathematics and scientific subjects.

To make matters worse, of the students who do formally study politics related subjects at school, we can see a significant gender gap. In 2013 slightly fewer than 7,000 boys took up an A-level in government and politics, whilst only 5,990 girls did so. For economics the figures are dramatic: 7,123 girls, versus 15,962 boys, embarked on A-levels in economics. Of the many issues associated with this imbalance, one of course is the underrepresentation of women in UK politics.

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In an attempt to shore up schools’ provision of PSHE, the government made citizenship compulsory in 2002. An examination of the citizenship syllabus looks promising:

“GCSE citizenship studies should enable students to deepen their knowledge of democracy and government, the law, rights and responsibilities and how we live together in society. Specifications should enable students to think critically, evaluate evidence, debate ideas, make persuasive arguments and justify their conclusions, play a positive role in public and democratic life as active citizens.” 

This sounds ideal, but perhaps overambitious and unrealistic when it is not prioritised by teachers or delivered in an accountable, reliable way. 

For, despite the lofty aims of the citizenship specification, the student experience reveals that the course is lacking in depth and rigour. The Student Room, an online forum, abounds with criticism of citizenship and PSHE provision. Many students feel frustrated with the citizenship curriculum, with users calling it a “joke” and “very easy”. Fears that revising for citizenship exams would deplete revision time better spent on “real subjects” is not only symptomatic of the UK’s obsession with assessment but also undermines the value of the subject for students and teachers.

This idea rings true for one university student, who I spoke to about her time at school:

“Citizenship wasn’t a term used at my school. In my school we supposedly had PSHE sessions about twice a week (20 minutes each) within our forms. But I only really remember having it lower down the school. As we got older, the time we used for that seemed to have more value if used to catch up on missed work. The teachers never seemed particularly interested in teaching it either. I remember doing basic things on racism, prejudice, some very basic things about relationships and sexual health. That’s about it.”

A visit to BBC bitesize’s revision section on citizenship, which has 11 sections including topics that could be courses in their own right, such as  “Relationships”, confirms the idea that the citizenship syllabus is too diffuse. Realistically, it would prove difficult for a teacher to give each element due coverage, especially given the intense pressure for GCSE grades in other subjects. This lassiez-faire approach to the teaching of politics turns it into a “nice to have” rather than the “foundation” subject as claimed by the Department for Education website.

Worse still, it is only state comprehensives which are compelled to teach citizenship as a “foundation subject”. Nicky Morgan’s plans to compel comprehensive schools to become academies and now Theresa May’s enthusiasm for the rebirth of grammar schools complicate matters. If grammars and academies are left behind, the quality and content of citizenship teaching can only become more inconsistent and less accountable.

Although the private sector is not required to teach citizenship formally, its structural advantages usually allow them to go further than state schools. Better resources and traditions like debating facilitate political education beyond what is feasible at most state schools. Eton’s £18m debating hall clearly does a great job in preparing its students for Westminster life, but as a country we must do better. There is no doubt of a causative relationship here with how the privately-educated continue to dominate political life. Without even mentioning nepotism and the horrors of the unpaid political internship, it is soft advantages like these  which broaden the gap between the opportunities conferred by state versus private education.

A lack of guaranteed political and economic education at school devalues our democracy and disenfranchises our youth. The patchy provision of political education is surely a contributing factor to the relative apathy of the young when it comes to voting. 18-24 turn out for the 2015 general election was only 43 per cent. To some extent youth turn out is a problem in many countries, such as the USA, where there is a fair amount of compulsory political education: young people often have priorities and pressures on them beyond politics.

However, the higher youth turn out in the EU referendum suggests that Britain’s youth are engaged and more could be reached with better political education. With many battles directly concerning youth ahead in the UK, such as the recent raising of tuition fees, it is vital that the young stand up for themselves.       

A new political education

In that vein, more and more voices demanding change are cropping up. Daniel Curtis, a student at the University of Oxford, has started a campaign with Natascha Engel, Labour MP for North East Derbyshire. Engel and Curtis are calling for compulsory political education at secondary level. They want to fill the vacuum left by incomprehensive government provision: “Natascha and I are working with local councillors in Derbyshire and Oxfordshire to encourage more school visits of councillors, or more opportunities for school trips into local government to teach young people how politics affects their lives, and how they can get involved. Many councillors already do valuable work, so we’re trying to build on pre-established links while making new ones, to build this movement from grassroots into something bigger.”

Curtis’ convictions stem from his own experiences at school in the run up to the 2015 General Election. These would ring true with many others’ recollections of politics being a subject infrequently mentioned by teachers. He bemoans the stifling of the potential for change that such neglect enables:

“Citizenship is a decent start. However, I struggled to find unbiased, independent information about the parties to delineate between them and  avoid being swayed by propaganda. I was appalled at the lack of information from my Catholic comprehensive school: no reminders to register to vote; no reminders to vote; no mention of the vote at all. We all must work harder to ensure that independent, informative discussion is open discourse in schools as future-defining votes approach.”

An online petition which has reached nearly 30,000 signatures demonstrates public appetite for compulsory political education. This a desire which has surely only grown since the spurious claims by both sides of the EU Referendum debate complicated what was already a difficult question. A fuller understanding of political systems amongst the electorate would force politicians to talk more plainly, and in greater specific detail about their proposals. Another petition, while unspecific in its gripes, forcefully conveys weariness with political spin. Compulsory political education would help alleviate such frustrations and hold politicians to account over the claims they make.

Another campaign promoting political education is the independent news network Shout Out UK . Matteo Bergamini founded it in 2014 to combat the decline of traditional journalism and to create “a network that is more inclusive, creates debate and stimulates thought on a variety of platforms”.

In order to combat these problems, Shout Out UK has launched an AQA certified Political Literacy Course. The course combines theory and practicality, whilst aiming to build skills as well as broadening knowledge, with a section called “Employability and Politics”. This module explores fundraising, public speaking, campaigning and the process of voting itself.

Bergamini praises the internet and social media as facilitators of youth engagement in politics, but stresses the need for a firm grasp of politics and statistics: “Without a grounding in stats young people are at the mercy of misinformation and misinterpretation, which in the digital age is dangerous. Twitter and Facebook are great, but have given voice to multiple interpretations of the same statistics by many different outlets and blogs. Now more than ever we all need this vital skill.” Without the ability to see through false claims and interpret data, the fear is that social media will distort political realities alongside improving engagement.

Rethinking economics

In terms of economics, a more open approach to the subject would encourage its filtering out of formal economics courses into citizenship-style lessons for all. Cahal Moran is chair of the Post-Crash Economic Society, a group at the University of Manchester who campaign for a reform of the way economics is taught. The group criticise the theoretical nature of economics as taught at school and university, which leaves little room for  practical application. Moran, speaking on healf of PCES, tells me: Economics is taught as a single set of theories which promote a particular view of how the economy works, rather than as a contested discipline with room for multiple perspectives.”

Moran indicates that it is not only the quality of political and economic education at school which is insufficient, but that just not enough pupils receive it: “Most students do not even leave school with an understanding of what economics is, let alone its content or how important it is in modern society”.  

He cites a lack of knowledge among teachers and confusing jargon as exacerbating factors, as well as the inability of exam boards to keep up with an ever-evolving political and economic climate. Moran indicates that student engagement in economics, either studied formally or through citizenship-style lessons, could be increased by letting go of the idea that economics is a purely mathematical discipline:

“The questions around methodology and philosophy are often overlooked.  A crucial part of addressing this lies in introducing economics to the syllabus by emphasising how connected it is to students’ lives e.g. their parents’ income, where they live, their careers. This could help economics to shed its image as an esoteric discipline for experts.”

This is essential because, as sometimes our Government and others seem to forget, young people are vital our future global wellbeing. If this dearth of political and economic awareness continues serious problems will arise. Issues like climate change are going to be even harder to approach, if the short-termism of current political elites is allowed to go unchecked. To ensure a more representative society, we must enable people to articulate their views in a confident and well-informed manner. We need to ensure that people feel politics is something that they can and want to engage with, rather than a carousel of the same politicians and policies.

Bergamini and Shout Out UK take heart from the rise of previously fringe political figures, seeing their arrival as indicative of a desire to engage with politics: “one can see that the rise of figures like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and issues like Black Lives Matter have reignited an interest in politics. However, these issues are not enough to get the next generation interested. Political literacy for everyone is the key.”

Update, 19/8:


Natascha Engels MP commented on the importance of political education to engagement, but warned against reductive generalisations about the Brexit result: “One can’t assume that anyone who voted Leave only did so because they were too uneducated or ignorant to understand the arguments, which I don’t think was the case. One may disagree with the result but that does not make it wrong – that is what democracy is about. Youth apathy is evident in every election and was less evident in this one. Many young people don’t feel confident enough to make a decision. That is an essential element of Citizenship – to make young people realise that they are unlikely ever to understand the full political arguments (many politicians don’t fully understand them themselves) but that a lot of it is to do with what you feel is right, or the party you feel most closely aligned with. Many young people are put off by the fact that we make them uncomfortable if they use slightly the wrong vocabulary or say things that we don’t like (on immigration for instance) and that’s our failing.” 

She stressed the importance of political at the local level: “I feel strongly that we present young people with politics as being Westminster. The real stuff happens at local council level – or even at Parish council level. That’s where real differences can be seen. Councillors rarely engage with young people and don’t visit schools like MPs do and that’s something that we could easily change.” 





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