Politics. It’s a word which can make people cringe with horror, or cause their eyes to glaze over at its mere sound. For many people, it conjures up images of dull, middle-class men in grey suits sitting at long table debating the finer details of agricultural policy in Herefordshire while sipping taxpayer-funded champagne and nibbling on canapés.
This is fair enough on one level, because a lot of the finer points of government policy can be dull, the majority of politicians sadly remain middle-class white men, and the taxpayer does fund a lot of champagne – around 8,000 bottles a year in the House of Commons alone, in fact. However, politics should be – and is – about so much more.
One of the reasons politicians and their debates can seem so alien to most people in the country is because virtually nobody receives an adequate political education at school. While children of wealthy parents can access teaching on politics and economics by attending private schools, most people – 93% – must make do with the patchy ‘Citizenship’ programmes provided by state schools, the curriculum for which is outlined in this document.
These are, frankly, utterly useless. Very little time is allocated to Citizenship – which is usually combined with other neglected areas to form a catch-all ‘PSHE’ course – and the lessons are almost invariably delivered by teachers who, while often well-meaning, are not specialists in the field and may not even have experience teaching any kind of social science or liberal arts subject.
The result of this failure in early education is evident if we compare the uptake of the citizenship studies and economics GCSE courses to comparable subjects such as religious studies and history:
As we can clearly see, uptake of these important subjects is worryingly low: 21,628 for Citizenship and 5,779 for economics. This means that, among the 63% of people who do not go on to do A-Levels, formal political education is virtually non-existent.
Things get a little better when we look at A-Levels but uptake is still poor:
15,103 people took A Level Political Studies (also called Government & Politics) in 2015; 27,575 took Economics. This means that, even making the extremely improbable assumption that no-one takes both a GCSE and an A-Level in one or both of these subjects, and that no-one takes both subjects at either stage, only about 70,000 people per cohort have any kind of formal political or economic qualification by the age of 18. This is well below 10%. And in reality, of course, the figure will be much lower – perhaps as low as 5%.
This is highly dangerous. It means that the vast majority of people are unequipped to grapple with the political realities of modern Britain. It has contributed hugely to the massive drop in voter turnout among 18-24 year-olds since 1964, when it was about the same as for over 65s – now there is a 23% gap, with young women even less likely to vote than young men.
It also means that many people who do cast their vote may not be doing so in an informed manner. Whilst it is entirely possible that people pick up the considerable amount of information about politics, economics and current affairs needed without formal education, is is highly dangerous to trust to this. The likelihood is that a significant chunk of the population – and there is no way of telling how large that chunk may be – is voting under the influence of party political spin and media narratives, without a core political knowledge to test the often-false claims of the political elite against.
In the end, the lack of decent political and economic education in schools is damaging to democracy. It undermines voter turnout and allows the political and media classes to far more easily push their own misleading narratives onto people. The success of the Tory Party’s patently false ‘economic recovery’ narrative is just one example of this.
Put simply, without politics education, you are able to be lied to about the way your country is run. We desperately need a comprehensive political-economic education programme, mandatory at KS3 and KS4, in order to shore up our flagging democracy and prevent the dissemination of outright lies by the political establishment. This will not be granted without a public campaign, as it goes against government interests, so if you want to support this initiative please sign this petition. You could also get involved with wider campaign groups such as The Citizenship Foundation.