Amy Dwyer discusses the need for compulsory political education.
We are facing a crisis of apathy. Significant numbers of voters identify as apolitical and often the reason that they don’t see the point in voting, that they feel alienated by mainstream politics or that they don’t understand how our political system works. This is a direct failure of our education system. If we do not instill the importance of voting and participating in democracy at a young age, this trend will follow people through life.
Young people should not have to opt in to understand our political system, this should be an important and compulsory aspect of our national curriculum. This passive attitude towards political education does immense harm to generations who grow up without it. In the national curriculum, PSHE is compulsory but unfortunately, the government states that they consider it ‘unnecessary’ to establish frameworks that dictate the basics of what must be taught. This means that there is the potential for vast inconsistencies in the social, political and economic education that young people are receiving. Clearly, this is problematic and it shouldn’t be left up to schools what they decide is important to teach. At present, it seems that basic political education is deemed not important, which is a woeful omission.
This is not to say that young people need to be taught the membership of select committees or how early-day motions work, but rather that young people should understand how our parliamentary democracy operates. They should understand in a basic sense of how laws are passed, what our MPs do both within the constituency and in Westminster and the importance of our votes. When I studied politics for the first time at A-Level I was almost astounded by how much I didn’t understand about how this country was governed. It shouldn’t take an 18-year-old making a serious decision to study politics as one of just four subject options, to gain a real insight into our political system. It is also interesting that there is a tangible gender imbalance in students who opt to study social science subjects and thus this further contributes to educational inequalities and the already male-dominated world of politics. If political education was compulsory for all, more girls would be likely to take an interest in the subject and study it further.
If young people are taught the importance of their vote from an early stage, then they are much more likely to carry this belief through to later life and apply it on polling day. While many might argue that to some extent, these are taught in GCSE citizenship, this is still a subject that students opt-in to study. It has been widely noted that the subject is not prioritised by teachers and is severely lacking in depth.
The fact that private schools do not follow the national curriculum means they can incorporate specific political education. While this means that they do not have to teach political education, they often have the structural advantages to teach it at a higher standard. This contributes to the already significant class gap in political engagement between state-educated students and privately-educated students. While many state-educated students go far in politics, it is less commonplace due in part to the simple fact that politics is rarely taught in any degree in state-schools. Already from a young age then, working class people are more removed from politics and less likely to seek a career in this field. This means that groups involved in making laws that apply to everyone, tend to be dominated by a specific portion of the population. This, of course, is a wider issue, but it does link to potential long-term issues associated with the lack of basic political education in the national curriculum.
Politics does not have to be a divisive, partisan subject when it is taught conceptually and this is how it would work best in schools, if we remove political leaning or bias and objectively cover institutions and concepts then we equip young people to be active citizens. If people are taught politics from adolescence then they will be more interested in politics, there could be more diversity within government and higher turnout at referendums and elections. Greater political understanding at all levels will also enable us to hold the government to account more effectively.
Amy Dwyer is studying for an MA in Politics and is an ambassador at 50:50 Parliament. She is also Women’s Officer for the North West Young Fabians.
She tweets at @AmyDwyer23