Turnout for the last election from younger voters was the highest ever seen. The recently held Scottish Independence referendum reduced the age of enfranchisement to sixteen. After decades of apathy and disinterest (hardly ever addressed by politicians) the young of the United Kingdom seem to be slowly waking up and getting out of their beds with regards to politics.
But does this place an expectation on schools to educate students more in this field? And if so, how? Neutrality is inscribed in the pedagogy of politics in schools, and therein lies a problem – it is hard to be inspiring if your subject matter has to be delivered with a leading eye on absolute balance.
It is fine to fire off the superlatives about Shakespeare, but not the majesty of May. (Or, in the strictest interests of even handedness, the charisma of Corbyn.) Really though, there can be no other way.
It was interesting to hear the conclusion jumped to by analysts regarding the upsurge in turnout at the last election amongst the young. Tuition fees. But, whilst not a scientific study, the anecdotal evidence garnered from interviewees suggested that this subject was a small consideration for them. After all, any changes would take a while to bring about, and therefore could only have the smallest impact on 18-22 year olds.
The motivating factor that got them to the polls seemed to be around Europe. There was a sense that older people had made a decision regarding Brexit which would have a negative impact on the young’s opportunities, and they needed to have their say.
I think that it is hard to make a case, in the widest educational sense, against political learning in schools. Mind you, think of the fun any presiding party would have designed that particular curriculum. Policy makers would have the time of their lives spinning their way around the topics included and excluded, putting on their most serious, caring faces and nodding wisely as they justify their choices. After all, this would be about the future of themselves…sorry, typo – I meant the future of the Young People of Britain (always spoken with capitals, that phrase.)
But equally, it is hard to leave it all down to teachers. Whilst most will seek to be deeply fair about the topics they choose, there will be those whose personal feelings will get in the way, no matter how hard they try (or not, in extreme cases) to avoid this.
In the Buckinghamshire constituency of John Bercow, the main parties do not stand (a tradition in the Speaker’s constituency). At the last election, one of the independents was a local politics teacher. Scott Raven was as even handed in his campaign as it is possible to be; praising Bercow’s work but raising the issue of disenfranchisement for the residents of the area.
Despite all of this, he is saying that there needs to be a change in the procedures and conventions of Parliament. Is it OK for a teacher to have his views known publicly? Personally, I would have to say yes, but there are many who feel differently.
Lots of schools already do some work regarding political education. There are elements of the citizenship programme that relate to politics, although the cynical might add that this will only be taught in the build up to an OFSTED. Elections themselves will see mock events held in schools, the best ones leading to an actual outcome for the pupils.
I know of one school that went to town on a mock election; a party leader was appointed (an appropriate lack of democracy in this bit) who developed a team to stand in each year group ‘constituency’. There was a leaders’ debate and hustings for the candidates. A small budget was offered to the winning party, who had to develop a funded manifesto.
It was a clever activity, and the pupils were engaged with it. However, that was that for another five years (or, as it seems now, six months).
However, apathy does remain amongst school age students. Probably the most significant factor is that they have no actual say in the outcome, with the exception of any Year 13 pupil who has already passed the age of 18.
They also report a sense of disillusionment with politics, that nothing really changes and all the leaders are the same. A vote for a smaller party is wasted. However, that perception is being challenged. The success of the SNP in 2015, the Conservatives in Scotland this year, the Green Party and even the rise and fall of UKIP all add up to show that the old order is, if not on the way out, at least having to look over its shoulder.
Trump’s unexpected success, as distasteful as it might seem to many over here, and the Brexit outcome both add to the growing belief that the times, they are a changing.
One of the biggest turns offs to the public regarding politics and politicians is the sense that they do not tell the truth. Claims made by both sides during the EU referendum were sometimes just not right. How much extra money will the NHS really see? Does Brussels really make the decision on the size of British Strawberries?
The ability to separate fact from fiction is one area where extra education would definitely make sense. A part of the problem is that the public is so cynical about what politicians say that even the truth is regarded with scepticism. And it is not just politicians. The Sun headline in the 1992 election asked that should Kinnock win, could the ‘last person to leave Britain please turn out the light?’ (Although, the impact of this is somewhat dampened by apocryphal accounts that 70% of the paper’s readership still thought it was advising them to vote Labour.)
So, yes, education has a role in politics. Who knows, at some point soon the voting age might be dropped, as it was in Scotland, and the more information the voting public has the better. This is not just regarding the democratic process, but also an understanding of the economy, foreign affairs, security, education, health and so on can only be welcomed. Presenting it in a completely balanced way is the challenge.
But then again, isn’t the whole point of a democracy that you do not have to vote? If students don’t want to know more…after all, as Brenda from Bristol might say: ‘There’s too much politics!’