Push to ensure pupils are 'politically literate'

By Jack Fenwick
Westminster Hour

  • Published
Students protest against climate change in central LondonImage source, Getty Images

"There's a fire inside of our generation that is so willing to change everything and it's motivating us to become more politically active than any other teenage group this past century," says Lisandr Qose, an 18-year-old from east London who has been taking political literacy lessons at school.

And it's true that in many ways it feels like young people are more engaged in politics than ever.

Issues like Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis and LGBT rights have captured the attention of Generation Z.

But when it comes to the ballot box, the UK youth vote still lags behind.

The 2017 election's so-called "youthquake" turned out to be little more than a tremor, and polling by Ipsos Mori suggests turnout among the 18-24 age group was just 47% in 2019.

A new group of MPs and peers, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Political Literacy, held its inaugural meeting this month and says that change should begin in the classroom.

Politics a 'big mystery'

"We've got a real problem in the UK about engaging young people in voting and more broadly in the democratic process," says Cat Smith, Labour's shadow minister for young people and a co-vice chair of the new parliamentary group.

"I know from speaking to pupils in local schools that quite often one of the barriers is they feel that they do not know enough about politics, it's a great big mystery.

"However, there are some schools which do teach political literacy really well and I can see the difference between those pupils and other pupils.

"The engagement with me as an elected representative is so much more meaningful and I am convinced that therefore they're more likely to want to engage in the process, to partake in democracy."

Citizenship education has been on the national curriculum in England since 2002, pupils in Scotland are expected to learn about politics through Modern Studies classes and similar teaching also takes place in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Image source, UK Parliament
Image caption,
Cat Smith says pupils who receive good political education are more engaged

But Dr James Weinberg, an academic at the University of Sheffield and one of the new group's co-founders, says in reality most schools are not able to teach political literacy adequately.

"Research that I did last year and other research projects similar to it, have found that it's only taught discretely in a fifth of schools."

He says that research carried out by the Department for Education in 2019 "suggested that just one in seven schools have a single trained citizenship teacher and, where the subject is taught or reported to be taught, it accounts for just 1.5% of learning hours".

The APPG will be working with Shout Out UK, an organisation that already runs classes in schools across the country, focusing on topics including how to form and debate opinions and where to source accurate information.

"When we were getting to Year 12, registering to vote, it would have really been nice to have that background knowledge already," says Zeynep Celik Kocak, a Year 13 pupil enrolled on one of Shout Out UK's classes at Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney, East London.

The pupils here all say that one of the biggest things they've learned is how to spot when a news story might be fake.

"I remember during the first lockdown, a specific 5G video, it went viral all over social media," says Lisandr Qose. "I remember people from different schools posting about it, people from my school posting about it."

Spotting fake news

Goldinne Opoku-Agyemann agrees: "Some of my peers, even though they would seem rational people, they also tend to fall for these kind of things as well because they don't go out of their way to research."

But she says the political literacy lessons meant she didn't fall for the conspiracy theory.

"They taught us how fake news and all of the phenomena around that is really misleading. I honestly didn't fall for it because they taught us how to identify and rather than spreading the fake news, you go and search for it for yourself."

The APPG wants all pupils across the UK to receive a similar level of political literacy teaching as those at Mossbourne Community Academy. It will also campaign for a new politics qualification - likely to be a BTEC or GCSE - and conduct further research into the links between civic teaching and engagement.

Image source, UK Parliament/ Jessica Taylor
Image caption,
The new group is made up of politicians from across Parliament

The group is made up of parliamentarians from across the political divide - Conservative MP Simon Fell and Labour peer Iain McNicol will act as chairs - but how can it reassure parents that lessons about issues such as Brexit and coronavirus will be impartial?

James Weinberg says: "That is already written into law. The 1996 Education Act makes it very clear that teachers and teaching staff can't be imposing or advocating partisan opinions in the classroom. We have to trust our teachers to be able to teach civic competencies, to teach political literacy."

'Difficult topics'

But he acknowledges that for this to happen effectively, teachers will need to be given the right tools.

"Provide them with initial teacher training schemes and continuing professional development that make them feel comfortable addressing what are sometimes controversial and difficult topics," he says.

A lack of engagement and understanding in politics is not unique to younger generations.

The pupils at Mossbourne Community Academy all said they would have liked to understand Brexit more, but during the Brexit drama of 2019, YouGov found only 13% of British adults knew exactly what "backstop" meant, while only three in 10 understood the details of a "no-deal Brexit".

"I do think that in terms of political literacy there is a problem not just amongst young people, there are plenty of people that I speak to that feel they don't understand how politics works," says Cat Smith.

But she says it's right that the group is focusing solely on young people.

"This APPG is focused on young people and I guess in some ways that's probably the best place to start.

"If we invest in young people now and they engage in the democratic process, hopefully that is creating the habit of a lifetime and will solve the problem in the longer term."

Listen to Jack's report on BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour at 10pm on Sunday.

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