This piece was originally posted on Wolves of Westminster.
The purpose of education is to broaden our minds, get us thinking about new things and challenge our own ideas and those around us. With this in mind, it baffles me that political education is not compulsory, when democracy, voting and being represented is such a core part of the United Kingdom.
We have seen the push for lowering the voting age to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote, but can we truly give them the vote if they don’t quite know what they are voting for? There is a view that schools are tainted with a ‘left-wing bias’, and that as a result, students are not thinking for themselves. For some, this is not true and students do think for themselves, or teachers encourage them to think about alternatives; this is where I was fortunate.
Studying GCSE History, I remember one module being on Post-World War One Britain and there was a fair bit of politics involved. Having a teacher who encouraged me to think about the ‘other perspective’ was where my interest in politics really took off. I had always had an inkling that my politics leaned more towards the Conservative Party, and more so when David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. I was comfortable with saying “yes, I agree with the Conservative Party” during my teenage years, because the teacher who inspired me (who is a Conservative himself) did not make me feel like the ‘odd one out’, as can sometimes happen in education.
For me, the non-existent political education until you get to A Level is one reason, I’m sure, why many of us are uncomfortable with lowering the voting age. According to Ofqual (2018), 16,605 students in 2018 sat A Level Political Studies exams. Considering that in 2018 there were 335,401, the number of Politics students is relatively low. So if political education is as important as the compulsory GCSEs, political education provides a very basic understanding of why Britain is a fair and tolerant country.
Why is political education not taught in schools? Is it because teachers are not interested enough in politics to be able to come up with engaging sessions? Or does the problem start earlier than this, with the view that students will not be bothered about learning about Politics? Perhaps because they’ve heard from their parents that “all politicians are the same, they’re all liars” and “nothing ever changes”, which instils these views in students at a young age? Of course, this is not entirely true – change does happen. It is slow, but surely it would speed up if more people were engaged and could really put pressure on Parliament to get stuff done?
On the thought of elections, it is frightening that there are people who vote for a candidate for the pure reason of “the colour of the party is my favourite colour” or “I heard from a friend that Conservatives are bad and Labour are good.” I’m guessing it’s quite a lot of people. Something needs to be done about this, if British politics, in the future, is to keep its historic success of being looked towards for guidance on how a democracy should work. We need our citizens to be confident in their knowledge and understanding when voting, whether it be in local elections, a General Election or a referendum.
Then there is also the issue of a small number of people not fully understanding what they had voted for, as we saw with the result of the EU referendum. This should have raised serious concerns; I know it did for me when I started my life as an Undergraduate Politics student in September 2016.
As I think back to my days at school, I would not have been comfortable with my peers at the ages of 16 and 17 voting, for the pure basis that they would not have taken it seriously and instead voted for whoever made them laugh. If the Conservative Party is truly the party of progress, then surely getting students engaged in politics, even just a little bit from Year 8 onwards, is a great starting point?
Of course, there is no sense in pointing out a problem and then not offering any solutions. The first would be to really get local MPs engaged in their local community by having drop-in sessions or days dedicated to talking to students – and not just for those in the top sets, or A Level Government and Politics students. Opening up who the MP speaks to at this level would make everyone feel included, and would start to break down the view that politics is “elitist” and “pale, male and stale.”
The second solution would be to have local constituency parties step up their involvement in their communities and actually speak to students about the reasons why individuals got involved. Getting local people on board, who contribute to politics part-time whilst living their normal life, would be a great and unique way to showcase the fact that this is all being done by local parties doing more for their community! It would also help the local party when it comes to election time, because they would know who is in the area and the view that they only ever show their faces when they want votes would be a thing of the past.
Finally, due to the complexities of politics, ranging from the different political ideologies, to how Parliament works, to the functions of the Government, there should be one academic term per academic year in which there is an informal politics session for an hour or two every week. There would not even need to be any formal assessment – just asking students to show what they have learnt at the end of term through a PowerPoint presentation or a logbook could be somewhere to begin.
Bearing in mind all of the above, taking political education seriously at secondary school could actually feed into the argument for seriously considering giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote across the whole of the United Kingdom.