One of the greatest challenges for the coming cohorts of school leavers will be the safe exercise and negotiation of personal civic agency in increasingly unstable political spaces, whether mediated through traditional politics, social media or via peaceful association and protest. If this is a challenge for young people, then it is surely also one for schools as well.
The requirement on schools to uphold British Values (which seem entirely reasonable) inadvertently highlights, in a raking and unforgiving light, their very dearth in much recent political and journalistic discourse. There is a certain irony that the absence of these same values has been most markedly felt in those same centres of power whence their authority is derived. In a period of unprecedented political and constitutional turmoil, and amid the undertows of fake news and data manipulation, what positive steps can schools take to educate for the safe and informed exercise of citizenship in a hazardous polity?
Over recent decades schools have worked hard to adapt their Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education programmes in response to developing guidelines and best practice in areas such as healthy relationships, alcohol and drugs education, debt and credit, online safety, diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation, and emotional and mental health. Few would contest that these are critically important areas for young people’s well-being and the ability to form healthy and positive relationships. The informed and safe exercise of lawful civic agency, I would contend, is as important a life skill as those more established components of PSHE courses.
Has our civic education, sometimes delivered through SMSC (Social, Moral, Spiritual & Cultural development), kept pace with the rapid mutations in our political culture that have been accelerated by social media, data harvesting and trans-national currents such as radical populism? In the early 1990s I was fortunate to be taking the Scottish Modern Studies Course. As Communism collapsed, the Cold War ended, former Soviet satellite states regained their political independence, and Yugoslavia tragically descended into civil war, our textbooks on the international side of the course became dated and irrelevant on a near daily basis. Might an analogous pace of change be occurring today for UK politics with significant, and perhaps largely unaddressed, implications for how we communicate this within schools as part of our civic education responsibilities?
There is, of course, much to be said for the existing means by which schools engage young people with our governing systems. Those who study courses such as A Level Politics or the Scottish Modern Studies qualifications, gain an excellent institutional literacy, political linguistic facility, and much else besides.
There is also much great outreach work done, both at an institutional level and by individual representatives and candidates. The trips to national and devolved seats of government, the school-hosted hustings, and the visits by MPs, MSPs, AMs, MLAs and councillors are of real value and help to humanise our understanding of politics. The very great majority of our elected representatives are motivated by the wish to serve and to do good, and many suffer grievous and unwarranted personal abuse, corrosive to decent civic life.
But the coarsening of political discourse in recent years, and the as yet only partially understood role of data harvesters and fake-news generators, would suggest that the traditional models for civic education may not in themselves be sufficient for ensuring that young people are equipped for life in an increasingly hazardous polity.
We should, therefore, consider the following as desirable components in any civic education course:
1. A basic grounding in international institutions and what they do
2. A basic understanding of (at the least) the 20th century Histories of all components of the United Kingdom
3. How laws are made at Westminster and in the devolved governments
4. The roles and standards of journalism in a plural political society
5. What listening is, and how to do it
6. Basic conflict resolution
7. An introduction to debating
8. How to write a persuasive argument on an issue you care about
9. How to support a cause or issue that affects your community
10. Knowing how and when to say sorry and admit error