I didn’t know I liked politics until I was 22 years old.
Having left school at 16, and despite having politically-minded parents, it wasn’t until my first Politics lecture at Newport University (where I did my Access To Higher Education course) that I discovered what was to be a life-changing passion of mine. I remember it very clearly; having undertaken my Access course with the plan of going on to study English at university, I ended up walking out of my first-ever politics lecture, calling my Dad, and saying “I’m going to be studying politics. That’s what I want to do“.
Though I’ve loved every step of the journey since then (including earning a BSc Politics and International Relations from The University of Bath), I often wonder how much further I could have gotten by now had I discovered my love of politics at an earlier age. What would I have done differently, if I’d had that direction? Where would I be now?
It has always struck me as odd that politics isn’t on the national curriculum here in the UK.
I can recall endless PSHE lessons on the dangers of drugs and sex (DO EITHER AND YOU’LL DIE), but nothing about the fundamental basics of how our country is governed, why it is governed that way and what you could do about getting involved.
Surely teaching our secondary school pupils about the workings of British democracy and the importance of voting (whomever you vote for) is vital in piquing the interest of our future voters? If young people do not understand how the system works, how are they ever supposed to engage with it?
At the moment there is no option to study for a GCSE politics, while A-level politics is discretionary, if it is offered at all. And whilst lessons on citizenship have been compulsory since Labour introduced them to the curriculum in 2002, Ofsted reported that many schools were still making no effort at all to teach the subject, despite over a decade having elapsed since it became mandatory.
Teachers, Parents and Politics
The same Ofsted report noted that teachers are reluctant to talk about politics in the classroom for fear of being accused of showing bias; and who can blame them? As John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, stated in 2010:
“The trouble is that their perception of what has been a fair and balanced lesson might not appear like that when a child reports on what happened to their parents. Schools don’t want the bad publicity of being perceived to have been biased.”
Similarly, parents are generally wary of the idea; afraid some teacher or administrator will impose a political agenda, opposite to theirs, on their children.
Of course, these fears are understandable. But politics in school doesn’t have to be like that.
A well-taught class about politics could and should be taught in the same way a History or Religious Education class is currently taught; with facts and science presented to pupils in a matter-of-fact way. Students are then free to draw their own conclusions, do their own research and talk to their peers and parents. If we believe that RE teachers can and should educate pupils on the vast plethora of religions in the world today without imbuing their own beliefs onto these ‘impressionable minds’, why not politics?
A politics class shouldn’t tell a student who to vote for; it should inform every student of how their democracy works and how they can and should play an instrumental part in it – whether that’s supporting, challenging or changing the status quo.
The Facts and Figures
In 1977, a 16 year old boy named William Hague spoke in front of the Conservative Party national conference. Drawing massive applause and acclaim, he was touted as an indication of the future of politics; fresh-faced, passionate and politically engaged teenagers willing to fight for their ideals.
But are politically-engaged teenagers hard to find? You might think so, since it was recently found that more 18-year-olds in the UK have a Facebook account than are registered to vote. Indeed, according to Experian, more than a million 18-year-olds are signed up to Facebook compared to only 520,000 on the electoral role.
Let that sink in for a moment.
And though the 2010 election saw a 7% increase in 18-24 year-old votes compared to 2005, this still put their turnout at a dismal 44% – the lowest of any age group, and 10% lower than the marginally less apathetic 25-34 year-olds, whose turnout was a mediocre 55%. Something, somewhere, is going very wrong for our young people and their relationship with politics.
But it’s not so black and white…
Teenagers and Political Engagement
Think about our recent UK political protests; in 2010 we witnessed a series of demonstrations held in opposition to planned spending cuts to further education and an increase of the cap on tuition fees; 50,000 protestors, many of whom were young people and students, took to the streets to challenge what they believed to be a political wrong.
Or what about the Occupy UK movement, which began in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York? Nearly 3,000 protestors, many of whom were ‘young people’, gathered outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011?
This isn’t an apathetic group of people; it’s not that young people are intrinsically disengaged. Such protests show that, across class and race, there are many young people who are willing to challenge unfavourable government decisions and societal inequality. To put it simply;
Not knowing about politics does not equate to not caring about politics.
No one can force you to care about politics. But knowing why you do or don’t care about them is important. The current educational system in the UK leaves British teenagers with no real understanding of how politics and society works and what their role is within it.
We are letting our young people down in a massive way.
Not only are we failing to educate them about the tenets of democracy and the society which they live in, but we are also failing to arm them with the critical thinking skills needed to combat media political spin and bias, present in so many major news networks thanks of profit and corporate bias (*Ahem-MURDOCH-Ahem*).
Yes – politics is full of idiots, crooks and the corrupt (as well as a few idealists and visionaries – they do exist!), but that’s exactly the reason we should be ensuring that our young people know enough about the system to understand that you shouldn’t take anything on face-value; politicians, the media or the bloke down the pub telling you who to vote for.
Democracy relies on the participation of everyone; so let’s at least make that ‘everyone’ a well-informed population from the start, who can then to choose whether or not to engage once they have all the facts.