Attending comprehensive schools in Wales during the 1980s/ 1990s I did not receive any form of political education whatsoever. Or if I did, I certainly don't remember it. It wasn't until the age of 16, when opting to study A Level Politics, that I actually started to learn about political issues, ideas and concepts. And I loved it. Partly because I had a wonderful teacher who posed problems and encouraged debate but mainly because I found it fascinating. Anyhow, the fact I had no political education until the age of 16 is absurd given that this is an area of civic life I was expected to participate in. Throughout this post I will explain why political education has, historically, not helped stem the tide of disillusionment/ disengagement and why during these politically turbulent times we should be striving to really develop children's political literacy.
Political literacy should be about raising children's awareness, consciousness and effectiveness in politics. As such, tt should also move beyond learning about government and policy making institutions to address wider political issues and concepts such as power, authority, democracy and justice. It has, however, been argued that national curricula are often designed around a neoliberal mandate concerned with creating docile economic subjects rather than politically-minded critical citizens (Apple, 2006; Ball, 2009). And yet ‘political literacy is one of the foundations of modern democracy and its guardian. It is the means by which citizens make informed choices about the kind of society they want to live in’ (Education Scotland, 2013, p.1). However, the current provision in schools for developing children’s political literacy has been deemed ‘weak or non-existent’ (Turner, 2009, p. 291). Consequently, it does not provide sufficient scope for children to become knowledgeable, critical, active and politically literate citizens. This is particularly disconcerting at a time when political disengagement and voter apathy amongst young adults has witnessed an upward trajectory since the 1990s (Pike, 2007; Bochel, 2009; Resolution Foundation, 2016). Indeed, during the 2015 General Election and the 2016 European Union Referendum voter turnout was lowest amongst 18 – 24 year olds (Ipsos MORI, 2015; Burn-Murdoch, 2016). This rise in voter apathy and decline in political engagement is why children need to have their political literacy enhanced through a challenging and effective teaching and learning. Political literacy should not, however, only include developing knowledge of political systems but should also develop children’s capacity to critically question and challenge institutions and ideas. It should also provide children with the opportunity to think consciously and allow them to grow intellectually with a concern for equality and social justice (McLaren, 1998).
The purpose of developing children's political literacy should be to make children more politically conscious and engaged. However, concerns regarding the paucity of political education in England have been expressed, sporadically, over the past fifty years (Davies, 1999; Gifford, 2004; Bochel, 2009). During the 1960s, political education focused on learning about the British Constitution and promoting values such as ‘humility, service, restraint and respect’ (Davies, 1999, p. 126). It is difficult not make comparisons with the current programme of study for Fundamental British Values, introduced in 2014, to ensure that children are taught to respect policy-making institutions, the rule of law and democracy (DfE, 2014b). This form of political education primarily involves the passive consumption of information rather than fostering children’s political criticality. Throughout the 1970s a Programme for Political Education (PPE), supported by the Hansard Society, began to move political education towards developing children’s political literacy rather than the learning of facts about parliament and democracy. Davies (1999) argues that while this approach was relatively successful, during the 1980s political education started to become increasingly issues-based. This was partly a reaction to wider societal concerns such as race, gender and nationalism. Davies (1999) maintains that political education’s profile tends to grow during times of uncertainty and upheaval and this was certainly the case during the 1980s. Indeed, following the outbreak of widespread rioting in Brixton, Birmingham, Leeds and Liverpool there was an increased demand for teachers to educate children about race-related issues. However, it was during the 1990s, amidst decreasing political participation and increasing disillusionment amongst young adults, that led to renewed calls for a political education which would strive to engage young people in political processes (Gifford, 2004).
It was partly because of political apathy and voter cynicism which finally led to an Advisory Group, led by Bernard Crick, being tasked with making recommendations for statutory political education in England. The 1998 report ‘Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools’ (QCA, 1998) resulted in citizanship education explicitly becoming a National Curriculum subject within its own right. Crick identified three strands which he believed should form the basis of citizenship education; social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. Although the report was well-intentioned critics argued that the breadth of subject content meant that it was always going to be difficult to implement in schools (Pike, 2007). By trying to embed a political education which covered all of these wide-reaching strands was destined to encounter logistical problems. In hindsight, it may have been more effective to have focused solely on the third element, political literacy. Within the citizenship curriculum, political literacy was intended to provide children with ‘realistic knowledge of and preparation for conflict resolution and decision making related to the main economic and social problems of the day’ (QCA, 1998, p. 12). This would appear far more beneficial to children than forcing them to become involved in a community project that they might not be at all interested in. Gifford (2004, p. 146) has suggested that one of the main problems was that ‘citizenship education is shown to reflect the liberal communitarianism that underpins New Labour’s social project’. So, while trying to distance itself from the neoliberal individualism of Thatcherism, it was still a form of citizenship education concerned primarily with creating economic citizens (Gifford, 2004).
Since 2013 the teaching of citizenship education has become non-statutory in primary schools in England (DfE, 2013). Instead, the Department for Education recommends that children should be taught to respect policy-making institutions, the rule of law and democracy (DfE, 2014b). This guidance is mapped out in the ‘Fundamental British Values’ strategy which, in large part, replaces some strands of the citizenship curriculum. The focus on ‘respect’ for institutions may very well help children understand the workings of the country’s political apparatus but does little to promote their criticality. As Arthur and Davison (2000, p. 22) contend ‘information is not enough. It is not sufficient to inform pupils about how parliament works’. Instead, a political education should provide children with an understanding of political concepts and ideas but should also allow them to critique and engage in discussions and debates with their peers. The teaching of Fundamental British Values has also been criticised for being an ‘act of cultural supremacism’ (Espinoza, 2016) and may actually fuel racism and divide communities rather than provide any form of community cohesion. Since Crick’s 1998 report there have been a number of criticisms regarding the quality of political education in the England.
One of the main criticisms of political education is that it focuses too heavily on learning about systems. Evidence suggests that political education still tends to focus more on acquiring civic knowledge rather than allowing children to develop meaningful enquiries into political issues and concepts (Crick, 2000; Billingham, 2016). This criticism has not been solely reserved for the English curriculum. It has been suggested that this is very common across Western democracies. If one takes the Canadian model as an example, Sears and Hughes (2006) contend that in Canada political education is more akin to indoctrination as the government has focused on developing political knowledge at the detriment of advancing pupils’ critical thinking around socio-political issues. The authors argue that political education in Canada is more focused on creating believers in the constitution opposed to allowing young people to formulate a critique of the status quo. Sears and Hughes (2006) maintain that citizenship education should provide children with the opportunities to challenge and criticise the provisions enshrined in the constitution. Similar criticisms have been raised about political education in England where lessons not only tend to prioritise knowledge but where learning is sterile and largely ineffective (Garratt and Piper, 2011). This might be because political education ‘requires further policy reinforcement and support, pedagogical innovation in the form of interactive materials and learning approaches, and teacher training’ (Keating et al., 2010). The focus on teaching training, or indeed lack of, is particularly worrying.
Political education is often taught by non-specialists who have no political background or training in delivering lessons which address political issues (Burton and May, 2015). Many teacher training institutions do not even offer Initial Teacher Training courses in political or citizenship education which results in a curriculum being delivered by already overworked professionals with potentially limited interest in the subject. Consequently, asking non-specialist teachers to deliver lessons which focus primarily on institutions, processes and political events is hardly going to ignite their imagination and engulf their enthusiasm (Tam, 2016). There has also been an ‘expectation that political education would be somehow the job of the history teacher, the subject of a few assemblies, a module in a personal and social education programme’ (Davies, 1999, p. 127). However, for political education to become a respectable and worthwhile subject in its own right, it must be given the status it deserves and be taught by specialist teachers with the training, resources and desire to teach it. As one would hopefully expect from any other secondary curriculum subject.
Political literacy should be about raising children’s awareness and interest in politics and fostering a desire to become more politically active. It also offers children the opportunity to learn about political concepts such as democracy, rule of law, representation and ideology. This is hugely important as ‘concepts provide students with the keys to unlock doors to more complex and critical thinking about political ideas’ (Douglas, 2002, p. 6). Furthermore, an education that focuses on political concepts can ‘provide the building blocks needed to construct a case for or against a given political position’ (Bellamy and Mason, 2003, p. 1). Political literacy is also concerned with equipping children with the critical skills needed to evaluate evidence and form logical arguments based upon that evidence. Furthermore, it provides children with the critical capacity to possibly ‘challenge the underlying structures of power reproduced by existing institutions’ Gifford (2004, p. 151). Political literacy goes beyond teaching children to respect political apparatus and encourages them to question the workings of the status quo and evaluate and discuss alternative methods and processes (Johnson and Morris, 2010). This approach to political education moves away from civic nationalism and can also help to promote active citizenship where children believe they can make a difference and contribute to a more socially just society. As Douglas (2002, p.12) argues ‘research indicates that a willingness to learn about politics is connected with people’s belief that they can bring about change’. In order for this to occur children must be given the opportunity to discuss and debate political issues with their peers . Fisher (2008, p.195) argues that creating a ‘community of enquiry’ where children can discuss philosophical issues can help them become more questioning and critical thinkers. A similar approach could be used to develop children’s capacity to discuss political issues and concepts. If children are to be treated as citizens instead of subjects then they must be given opportunities to critique political procedures (Pike, 2007).
Political education should be about fostering ‘creative and critical’ citizens rather than an ‘obedient populace’ (Johnson and Morris, 2010, p. 78). This obedience, however, reflects the neoliberalist ideology which focuses on producing dutiful economic subjects (Davies and Bansel, 2007; Ball, 2009). Since the 1970s and the growth of neoliberalism/ neo-conservatism the whole notion of collective learning around political and societal issues has been vastly reduced (Tam, 2016). Political literacy promotes critical thought where children analyse political concepts but also compel them to want to confront injustice and inequality. Political literacy ‘can invoke a politics of the common good in which citizenship is collective political effort in the context of social justice’ (Davies, 1999, p. 131). Political literacy is important as a participative democracy requires an autonomous citizenry that can think for themselves and make decisions which impact upon wider society (Fisher, 1998, Whiteley, 2012). Political literacy should not just be about democracy or civics but providing children with the opportunities to ask meaningful questions about society, governance and democracy. Furthermore, political literacy should enable ‘evidence and reasoned debate to trump unsubstantiated assertion and hyperbole’ (Education Scotland, 2013, p. 1). If one considers elections as an example; not only must one be able to scrutinise political party manifestos but also have the critical capacity to question bias (and untruths) in the media. It is difficult to see how this can be obtained without the introduction of a political education which is primarily concerned with enabling children to become more politically literate.
Political disengagement and voter apathy amongst young adults has witnessed an upward trajectory since the 1990s (Pike, 2007; Bochel, 2009; Resolution Foundation, 2016). The introduction of statutory citizenship education since 1998 has done little to remedy this worrying phenomenon. Coupled with the rise in far right-wing politics across Europe (Henley et al., 2016), political education could be entering another period of renewed advocacy. During these politically uncertain and unpredictable times, children need to have their political literacy developed through an approach that is primarily concerned with developing their understanding of key political concepts but also their ability to think critically.