In response to the formation of an APPG on Political Literacy, Robert Lennox discusses why it is crucial for political literacy to be taught in schools.
Figuring out how to participate in the political process is an overlooked aspect of becoming an adult. The omission of any meaningful political literacy from our education system is increasingly glaring in an era of widespread misinformation, polarisation and declining participation. The formation of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy is a timely and important first step in hopefully addressing this oversight.
Under the last Labour government, in response to the historically low turnout of the 2001 general election, a new Citizenship subject was established. I was fortunate enough to teach part of the Citizenship GCSE whilst I was training at a progressively minded secondary school in Oldham, which had made the subject compulsory. Alongside learning the fundamentals of UK government and politics, the course also gave an overview of the UK justice system and included a coursework component in which students created a campaign on a social issue of their choice. Unfortunately, just as the subject was establishing itself, the Coalition government’s education reforms forced most schools to side-line Citizenship. Consequently, very few schools offer it as a GCSE option and the coherence it provided concerning political literacy was supplanted with a vaguer requirement that schools ensure students respect democracy and the rule of law as ‘British values’.
The need to equip young people with an understanding of politics has never been more urgent. As a result of the failure of subsequent governments to address the issues that young people care about, alongside the bleak economic realities that the majority face when they enter the world of work, there is a growing dissatisfaction with democracy[i]. When this is combined with the spread of fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories via social media, the potential harm to future generations becomes clear.
In addition to ensuring young people understand the fundamentals of this country’s political system, a robust political literacy programme in school would likely raise voter turnout amongst young people and help establish voting as a lifelong habit. In the previous election, voter turnout for 18-24-year-olds was 47%[ii]. Furthermore, 18-24-year-olds were the age group that was both most likely to feel getting involved in politics was ineffective and the least likely to have participated in any political activity[iii]. It is also worth highlighting that it is currently Labour policy to extend the franchise to 16-year olds, in which case, political literacy in schools is a necessary prerequisite.
The encouraging news is that if any initiative is introduced as a result of the APPG’s recommendations, we would not be starting from scratch. As mentioned before, the curriculum for Citizenship provides a promising foundation. There are also some excellent teaching resources made by the Parliamentary Education Service, certain local authorities and various charities and social enterprises. The most significant challenge to teaching political literacy at school is ensuring consistency. Political literacy would need to be a compulsory part of the national curriculum; however, a result of our fragmented education system means there is a risk that the provision would vary from school to school, especially in an environment where teachers are already struggling to fully deliver the demands of the current curriculum. In order to address this, there would need to be clear guidance and expectations from the Department for Education on what is expected from a school’s mandatory political literacy programme, and this should be part of future regulations on educational standards. A programme that stretched from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4 would comfortably provide students with a knowledge and understanding of our political system. Such a programme should teach the functions of our different branches of government, the development of human rights, the role of pressure groups and the media. In addition, as students progressed through the year groups they would also learn the importance of voting and the ideas and policies of our political parties.
The time has come for our education system to adequately equip young people with the knowledge required to fulfil their role as citizens in a democracy. We know politics is one of the means through which we can make the world a better place and it is time we ensured young people leave school ready to participate.
Robert Lennox is a Sixth Form Politics Teacher in Redbridge. He is a Policy Officer for the YF Education Network.