In a sense, schoolchildren in England learn about politics the hard way. In the past, members of the NEU (National Education Union) walked out in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions, following strikes that are set to continue.
For most pupils, it’s just an extra day off school. But there’s an opportunity here to fill the yawning gap in political education and the real – and sometimes chaotic – world of politics happening around them.
Currently, there is no mandatory political education in the UK, apart from its inclusion in the curriculum as part of citizenship, or even the option to take it as a GCSE despite overwhelming evidence of young people’s interest in political issues.
Greta Thunberg, who last week ended her school protest outside the Swedish Parliament after graduating, sparked a global wave of school strikes in 125 countries involving millions of pupils. Their collective calls for urgent action should have been a wake-up call, not just to the climate crisis, but also to how politically engaged school-age children can be.
Yet the education system here fails them. Recent figures reveal the huge disparities in mainstream political education; a fifth of secondary schools offer no political lessons at all, only a third of schools offer a weekly lesson on politics or citizenship, and a shocking 1 percent of teachers said they feel confident teaching politics. But a survey of 1,500 parents found over two-thirds (72%) think it’s important to be politically literate.
Moreover, the most deprived pupils get the least amount of political education, and fee-paying or independent schools often score the highest for offering intensive and regular political lessons.
Clearly, all young people, many of whom might be voting for the first time in the upcoming general election due before 2025, have a stake in society and will go on to work and contribute in all sorts of ways.
But we seem happy to send young and underprivileged kids into the world with very little understanding of the political processes of parliament, why it’s important to vote, and why they should stand up and make their voices heard – because those decisions will get made without them if they don’t.
To avoid this recipe for political apathy, there should be a much greater emphasis on politics in the curriculum. Research shows that where students got a regular high-quality learning experience in politics and citizenship, they developed a greater belief in their ability to make a difference locally or nationally and to influence others, they were more likely to participate in politics and their communities in fundraisers and signing petitions.
If there was the political will to engage more young people in politics, the change could come rapidly. The report by the All Party Political Group on Political Literacy, Lottery of Provision, suggests regular funded training for all NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers) in political education, giving all teachers the tools on how to approach controversial issues in a sensitive way. The three barriers outlined by most teachers from all schools were demands on teachers’ time, teaching expertise, and curriculum content.
To find out about campaigning organizations working to improve political literacy, go to www.shoutoutuk.org