One of the principal purposes of education is to enable young people to become informed and engaged citizens. At a basic level we need all school leavers to understand the value of their voting right (gained through the sacrifices of past generations), and how to participate effectively within a pluralistic system.
While comparatively lower levels of turnout among potential first-time and younger cohort voters is not a recent phenomenon (although corrected somewhat in the 2017 General Election), the risks arising from such wholesale civic abstention seem ever more acute in our rapidly mutating political culture. This is an urgent issue for the education system, but not merely because of the duty incumbent on schools to promote pluralistic values. If we accept that the future of democracy depends on an informed electorate, capable of formulating reasoned argument, and evaluating political claims, then there is significant work to be done by schools.
But there is a more profound and urgent challenge for schools. Over the last two and a half decades schools have worked hard to embed values of respect and truthfulness at the centre of behavioural codes, and as core threads in PSHE education. But the tone and character of aspects of recent political debate – and the way it is amplified through some traditional and social media channels – undermines the good work of schools in promoting the values needed by the next generations of citizens.
The coarsening of rhetoric, the rise of identity politics, the echo-chamber effect of social media, the proliferation of extremist rhetoric and conspiracy theories online, the rush to take offence, the appropriation of outrage, and the as yet only partially understood role of harvested data in the shaping of opinion and the targeting of individual voters, present powerful challenges to our understanding of the world around us. How should schools make sense of these phenomena when articulating the positive value of a pluralistic political system, and an open society where the individual is empowered to express comment, opinion and much else besides?
Of course much great work is already being done, whether within the curriculum, by groups working to promote young people’s voices such as youth parliaments, and also by elected representatives visiting schools, or welcoming pupils to centres of national, devolved and local government. It is difficult to put a value on such opportunities, and pupils relish the opportunity to question and challenge elected representatives.
The question of how best to educate young people about politics and government is not a new one, but it has certainly become more urgent. While many thousands benefit from courses such as A Level Politics or Modern Studies, a far greater number miss out on such opportunities. The current state of political culture raises the question of how we can ensure that pupils in all schools are empowered with the skills and knowledge required to exercise their citizenship and participate in civilised debate.
A key challenge for the education system is to equip future generations of voters and citizens with an informed and critical understanding of institutions, processes, actors and influencers.
All young people should leave school with a basic understanding of the following, although this list is far from exclusive:
- The core functions of Parliament, Central Government, Local Government, the Civil Service and non-Departmental Agencies
- The roles of political parties, think-tanks and pressure groups
- How laws are made
- The rights and responsibilities that accompany freedom of expression (as understood within the law)
- The core principles of journalistic ethics, such as the distinctions between fact and opinion
In addition we also need to equip young people with the skills of citizenship including:
- critical evaluation of news sources and social media
- debating and the construction of reasoned argument
- mediation and non-coercive solutions to conflict
- the capacity to appreciate opposing perspectives
- the ability to admit one’s own errors and forgive the actions of others
Politics and its reporting have changed significantly in the age of social media and big data. Schools needs to catch up and renew their provision of civic education. The long-term goal is surely a healthier political culture, with future cohorts of citizens from all backgrounds more confident to engage in informed debate, and to express their opinions, both at the ballot box and via other forms of peaceful participation.