Thursday, July 31, 2008

Guest Blog: Let's Have More Politics in Schools

By Justin P. Kempley

One of the perpetual pledges of politicians is that of “engaging with young people”. It is undoubtedly a problem; shameful voter turnout amongst my own demographic fundamentally questions the value of our representative democracy. I suspect that most people my age can name more Big Brother contestants than they can British politicians. The reason why political participation is so shamefully low amongst younger people is part of a wider political culture that is developing amongst UK youth.

I won’t hide my unusual interest in this subject, as a 17 year old student and a political party member applying for a politics course at university I am most definitely to be seen as an abnormality. However I can see an obvious trend amongst my peers.

To most young people politics is “boring”. This though is inevitable when you don’t know what the rules of the game are. Cricket is boring to those who don’t understand the numerous rules and customs, but fascinating to those who do. The same goes for chess, rugby, opera etc. Some readers of this blog may never watch a television programme such as Big Brother, but if they understood the house dynamics and rules from the start then they might well have been captivated by it.

Young people have lost touch with the detail of the art of politics - a void is easily filled by popular celebrity culture. The proliferation of glossy magazines and tabloid sales in past years demonstrates this. The vast majority of people read, whether or not their journal talks about Gordon Brown or Amy Winehouse or (as it should) both is a different question. It’s a matter of out of sight and out of mind that creates a vicious spiral of disengagement.

I feel that if you want to get more young people like myself involved in politics, you’ve got to give them a basic understanding of what politics is, how it is run and what it does. Every party political promise to “engage” with young people is otherwise wasted. Initiatives to make it easier to vote by text or email are just another layer of wasted electoral funds, when they will likely remain unused or abused. Besides, do we really want anyone to vote if they are so uninformed or uncommitted that the bother of walking to the polling station every year or so is overwhelming?

It’s important to say the solution is not to dumb down electoral politics. Moving the goalposts of the beautifully simple system used in Westminster would be a very shortsighted and frankly an irrational move. Instead we need a political culture, not in the sense of a culture of protecting civil liberties or one political colour or another, but a culture of being interested and informed in politics. This should be done though, not through youth groups or policy think tanks, but the one place that we are a captive audience, schools.

If we could develop a culture in which young children are given doses of politics and current affairs alongside their English and Maths, as well as promoting a sense of civic duty and citizenship we’d invest them with a valuable knowledge of politics for life.

Some schools do now offer an A level or GCSE in politics. I can certainly vouch for the fact that the A level covers the subject in admirable detail. Well taught students will leave with an understanding of our constitution, electoral matters and a grounding of recent political history.

But these are optional and only offered to a small number of fortunate students, arguably at too old an age. It doesn’t need to be in the form of a qualification either. I believe something in the mould of the government secondary school compulsory citizenship course is more what we need. The course itself it frankly poorly thought out, too short and fails to discuss our democracy to an adequate level. However it is a starting point.

My point is though, that representative democracy is built upon informed voters, and informed voters require political knowledge. I look at my peers and it does seem that without a foundation in political education, the political side of our brain never gets going. I certainly don’t think a compulsory politics course is the panacea to our political educational need, or the social problems young people face. However it will at least in part help enrich our political process.

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20 comments:

judith said...

Very sensible, but I strongly recommend that first there is a term-long course in how the country is actually run: from parish councils to county councils to Westminster to Brussels. Once students understand the basic structure, then political ideologies can be explored.

Andrew said...

As a student interested in politics and a former A-Level politics student, I have to congratulate this guy - he is absolutely spot on. Utterly brilliant article.

Anonymous said...

Well, yeah, politics in detail doesn't interest many young people- that's not to say they don't have views on issues like 42 days. The problem with teaching it in schools is that teachers will either impart their own prejudices- not to the brightest students, but to those who can't be bothered to question recieved opinions- or teach it in such a dry, but impartial style, that it is actually a turn-off.

Anonymous said...

One concern.

Most of the teachers I had were fairly left wing and open about it.

At college I had one lecturer who was a great admirer of Stalin.

If politics was taught at school is there a risk of it becoming left wing propoganda.

Andrew F said...

I 100% agree. I'm also 17, also into party politics and also considering applying to study politics.

Politics doesn't need to change in order to 'engage' young people, and so I cringe everytime I hear about initiatives to make it more interesting. I struggle to think of something more exciting than a perpetually evolving game to determine who has vast quantities of power and money at their disposal. There simply is no way to make that more glamorous.

People will get engaged when they realise what politics is.

Doug said...

Current Affairs - yes. Governance and Democracy - yes. Politics - No. Considering that the teachers and the NUT are heavily partisan they cannot be trusted to teach politics. Teach the mechanics of government and democracy of citizens rights and responsibilities.

Colleen said...

How objective would the lessons be while we're on this government's shift?

While campaigning for Harlow's local referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, a number of school students told me that they've been taught at school that the EU and federal integration wil bring peace and prosperity to the world. Yet they'd not discussed any of the criticisms of the EU in these lessons.

Anonymous said...

"Some schools do now offer an A level or GCSE in politics"

"From parish councils to county councils"

None of these things exist in Scotland as we have a different system of education, local government, health service, legal system, churchs, a national parliament, a 4-5 party system, proportional representation . .. list goes on.

Excellent piece. I'm 19 and a student also and the casual references to things that people assume are UK wide make realise more than ever that I live in a different country to you. Every time i go to London it feels more and more like dublin, ie sort of the same but you know you're in a foreign country. Off topic, sorry.

judith said...

Anon@11.01: I live in England so I know the English system so that's what I referred to; note I referred to 'country' not 'the United Kingdom'; what's to stop Scottish schools teaching the Scottish political system?

And guess what - when I leave London and visit other parts of the UK, they feel different, that's why I like to travel around the UK!

Sam Tarran said...

I completely oppose politics becoming a subject in schools. I don't understand why primary and high schools pupils need to know "how politics works", and don't understand why they should be expected to have fully informed political views. They'll come to be interested in politics in time in their own way.

I oppose it even being an A-level subject. In my view, if you're young and you've got the interest, teach yourself. I shouldn't imagine an A-level in 'politics' is respected by many employees. Hence why I'm not going to do it next year. I'm sticking with respected, academic subjects.

Voter turnout is not low because people don't understand 'the rules and conventions'. The turnout is low because people think all politicians are the same, both in terms of policy and how sleazy and corrupt they are.

And to answer you other points, a lot of people probably aren't interested in cricket because it can be a ridiculously tedious and slow sport, and most people don't watch Big Brother because it's not entertaining, it's not informative, it's just crap:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQAr_AjZt-E

Richard Holloway said...

If you want to make young people interested in politics, give them the power, give them the vote. Teach them what struggles men and women went through to have a say in how their country was run. Then have young, impressive local politicians come in to debate in front of them and engage young people in the things that are happening around them.
Anything has to be better than the current situation.
I remember well studying hard for my politics A level at the 2001 election, it fell on the day before my final politics paper. Could I vote in that election? No, some arbitrary man in a suit had decided I wasn't old or mature enough. Lower the voting age to 16, hold classes on how we came to have the vote and live in a democracy through the blood, sweat and tears of our forefathers and then you might get young people caring.

Phil C said...

It's a neat thesis, but I'm not sure it stands up. I can understand your argument that the enjoyment of rugby or cricket is enhanced by knowledge of the rules under which they operate, as I like both sports and part of my enjoyment is understanding how the tactics and strategy fit in with the rules of the game. However, I also understand the rules of soccer and it bores me to tears, similarly if I "understood" opera I still wouldn't like it as in general I dislike the music.

When I was at school and college in the early years of Thatcher, many of my friends were members of the Young Conservatives and party politics were thriving. Since then, we have had a lessening of the tribal party bonds.

Your argument strikes me as being similar to the "people aren't voting, there's something wrong with them" argument trotted out by many politicians. Actually we live in a democracy - if people don't vote, it's up to them. Like you I am concerned if this is the case, but school lessons ramming home the political status quo are not the answer. The answer may be that the political system is broken, needs a radical overhaul, and there is too much inertia in the system to make that a real possibility.

I think people need to be taught how to think, and how to challenge orthodoxy. Television news could be a place to start. All through the 42 days debate, for example, it was all Labour v Tory, Good v Bad, no discussion on why it might be necessary, whether and how it would challenge civil liberties, and what alternatives might be possible. If I was David Cameron I would have spent every PMQ demanding answers on all those things.

Personally, I am concerned that we seem to be entering more and more into an oligarchic system where our rulers come from a certain political class, are already wealthy and/or enrich themselves in office at our expense, and play to rules which severely restrict political discussion - e.g. you are apparently not allowed to discuss any policy on drugs except the current one. EU membership also makes the UK government less and less relevant - and we all know how there is only one political viewpoint allowed to EU members. No wonder people don't vote.

Roger Thornhill said...

There is no point teaching about the "how" if there is no background on "why".

Magna Carta, Peasants Revolt, Chartists showing how Sovereignty has been transfered from the State to the People and then LENT back to representatives in Parliament. Teach that and the treason of the EU treaties should be obvious to all but the most rancid federasts.

Anonymous said...

A good article, but I'm in the 'no' camp. I'm already having to unspin the simplistic left-wing messages my children are picking up at primary school whenever they engage in any community-type project from well-meaning but ultimately naive and socialist teaching staff. Having this benign indoctrination formalised through some inclusion on the curriculum would be appalling, aside from being a case of leading horses to water...

The proper way of getting round this from an educational point of view, would be to teach British history properly. Then maybe children would understand why we have the institutions we have and the sacrifices made by so many to found and then protect them.

John Bennett said...

40 years ago in my 1st Year at secondary school I had one lesson a week entitled 'Civics' which gave me an excellent grounding in the ideas of Governance and Democracy. The lessons, taught without political slant, gave me a life long interest in politics (thats with a small 'p').

Very impressive guest Blog. Can we have more from this person please Iain.

Wallenstein said...

I would suggest that the current electoral system has apathy built-in, particularly amoung the young.

My village has in my lifetime only ever had a Tory MP. In fact, in the 30-something years I've been alive, the Tory candidate has never failed to poll less than 40% of the total vote, and it's usually over 50%.

So it wasn't hard to feel as a teenager that my vote was utterly meaningless - you could stick a blue rosette on a turnip in some of the outlying villages and it would be voted in.

The same is true in many Labour seats - a red rosette on a pit pony would have the same effect.

It's surely not the case that each voter was fully convinced of the candidate's personal qualities and the policies for which they stood - it's tribal politics, and anyone from the smaller tribe stands little chance of seeing their vote make a difference.

Indeed, it got to the point where many of my peers would vote for fringe parties (Greens, single-issue candidates etc) purely to give them some encouragement to keep working for local issues... the feeling was that voting for any of the "main" parties was pointless, as the local Tory would get in as usual.

There are currently c90 marginal seats in the UK, where voters can genuinely feel that their vote could play a part in the outcome... in the majority of seats the chances are that the "traditional" candidate will remain.

Barring seismic elections such as 1997 (and arguably 2010), that tends to be most people's experience of parliamentary voting.

Of course, this is a wider issue with any electoral system... the so-called "Lever paradox", where considered in purely rational terms, each voter *knows* that their vote is ultimately insignificant in relation to the actual result. No election is ever won or lost by a single vote, so whether I vote or not will have no bearing on the outcome.

Obviously if everyone thought like that the system would break, so it's a delusion we allow ourselves to convince us that we matter.

Despite its many flaws, proportional representation at least allows people to see their vote having a meaningful effect in an election, but I can't see that happening any time soon.

One solution might be a greater focus on local politics, but that requires central government to cede greater control away from the centre, so that people can see local politicians actually making (and therefore being responsible) for local decisions.

Anonymous said...

"I feel that if you want to get more young people like myself involved in politics"

Absolutely not. They should be kept far far away from anything serious until they've grown up.

"I can certainly vouch for the fact that the A level covers the subject in admirable detail."

Bet you can't.

Anonymous said...

I agree with John Bennett (no relation). I taught Government and Politics and before that 'civics'. A knowledge of how the country is run including its institutions together with a short history of why they have developed as they have, is an essential part of education. I would also include some basic economics so that pupils know why companies make profits etc. This can be done without bias. Schools should also encourage debate so that pupils can hear competing views on the way in which the country and the economy are run.

Martin said...

Politics in school? Iain are you kidding?

I'm fed up to the back teeth having the likes of the BBC give me the 'views' of 14 year olds.

I'm not interested in what some spotty unwashed offspring of inbred chavs think.

If politicians really want people to take an interest in politics, it's simple.

Do what people want and what they think they are elected to do.

The problem with politics is party politics.

You can brainwash kids as much as you like, but so long as Westminster remains so morally corrupt, interest in politics will continue to decline.

Goodnight Vienna said...

Every day is Yorkshire Day if you're a Yorkshire man or woman. Who was it who felt it necessary, in 1975, to introduce this 'special day'?

If you're angling to lower the voting age, forget it. Forget it until you improve education through the three tiers. Keep education and politics apart until education provides a worthwhile benefit - eg I wouldn't like our local crack-dealer (he looks about 15/16), to have a vote.