‘We are weakening democracy’: fears over lack of lessons in how government works

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/the Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/the Guardian

“She’s just a middle-aged woman, what would she know about it?” In a small classroom on a dark winter afternoon in east London, a group of students are talking about deciphering the meaning behind a tweet. The group is discussing how language and information are used online for political influence, particularly by anti-vaccination campaigners in the middle of a pandemic. Today they are unpicking social media posts by the mother of a child with autism, who is falsely linking that condition with the MMR vaccine.

But these teenagers see through it. “She’s not a doctor,” one said. “She’s trying to say she knows something, but she doesn’t.”

These year 12 students at Hackney’s Mossbourne Academy are discussing how to interrogate information online and be sure that you can trust what you read. It is part of a lesson in political literacy, taught by the social enterprise Shout Out UK, which aims to make sure children leave school knowing how democracy works and how they can help to bring about change. Students have learned about the first-past-the-post voting system, discussed the role of the House of Lords, and are now debating the media and conspiracy theories and how they affect politics and society.

Mossbourne, in Hackney Downs, introduced the lessons after seeing the effect of the Brexit referendum result on students. “That day there was a sadness; an atmosphere existed in the school,” said Nick Redgrove, the school’s higher education support officer. “Rather than there being a direct interest in politics, [the pupils] wanted to know why. Since then we have done a lot more in terms of engaging them in current affairs.” The presidency of Donald Trump, the troubled leadership of Boris Johnson and movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have kept pupils interested.

But where Mossbourne Academy has acted, thousands of schools have not. A report from the all-party parliamentary group on political literacy, the University of Sheffield and Shout Out, published in November, found that thousands of pupils are leaving school without receiving any political education at all. A survey of 3,000 teachers working at more than 2,000 English secondaries suggested that one-fifth of schools were teaching no political literacy material at all, in citizenship lessons or even in tutor group sessions or one-off political events.

“That’s pretty shocking when you think about how many students are involved,” said Dr James Weinberg, one of the report’s authors and a lecturer in political behaviour at the University of Sheffield. The study, commissioned by the all-party group 20 years after the introduction of citizenship classes, found political education to be in a dire state.

The pressure on teachers to meet exam grade targets is squeezing out these lessons, Weinberg explains. “Even where schools say they do citizenship education, often it’s just part of PSHE [personal, social, health and economic education]. In most places these subjects were being lumped together as there wasn’t enough time to do them separately.”

Citizenship became part of the national curriculum in 2002 after the Crick report. But the subject has been edged out and neglected in many schools, and academies do not have to follow the national curriculum. The study did not ascertain whether academies were more likely to have dropped political literacy teaching.

Alex Thirkill, of the Beacon school in Banstead, Surrey, an academy, has taught citizenship and managed its teaching across his career. He said he was not surprised by the findings. “There was never a golden age of citizenship education. It was born on life support,” he said. “As pressures on schools for results, and financial pressures, have grown it has become less and less important to schools. If you said to me 50% of schools [weren’t covering political literacy], I would have thought that would be more accurate.”

The study also revealed that many teachers feel ill-equipped to give students the information they need. About 60% of those polled said they felt responsible for developing young people’s political literacy but the majority (79%) did not think their training or professional development had given them the skills to do so. Teachers of humanities were more likely to feel confident in this area than those with a background in Stem subjects. However, 43% of science teachers said they had delivered political literacy teaching at least once in the last year, often in form time or “drop down days”.

There are other problems. “Teachers might dodge this responsibility because they fear difficult conversations and also the comeback,” said Weinberg. “They fear what parents or communities might do if they say the wrong thing to students; the politicisation of education has been salient in recent years.” Individual teachers worry they could be vilified on social media for comments made in class, taken out of context.

This anxiety about ramifications is also a consequence of the Prevent programme, according to Weinberg. He describes the policy of involving teachers in terror prevention as having “heightened teachers’ sensitivity to the discussion of controversial issues in the classroom”.

Inequality is a factor in patchy provision. “The differences between schools serving affluent and less affluent areas was really shocking to me,” said Weinberg. Students at private schools were more likely to receive a detailed grounding in political literacy than those at state schools. But Weinberg’s study found pupils at schools in the most deprived boroughs were much less likely to receive any political education than those in wealthier areas.

Simon Fell, the Conservative MP for Barrow in Furness and a member of the parliamentary group that commissioned the report, said the findings demonstrated the urgency of “trying to get young people engaged in politics and showing that politics matters to them”, and he said he believed the government should find ways to do that. Fell said this should not mean extra demands being dumped on teachers, but that the teacher training curriculum should be rewritten. “It’s on the Department for Education to be looking at this … to be funding the training of teachers so they are properly qualified to do this.”

But meanwhile, how to get this work embedded into an already very busy curriculum? At St Birinus school, a boys’ comprehensive in Didcot, Oxfordshire, one member of staff coordinates all work on politics, from visits from MPs and holding shadow elections to, recently, a mock Cop climate conference. The deputy headteacher, Briony Bowers, said it had been easier for the school to manage this work when one teacher took the responsibility to pass on the curriculum and train the staff in how to deliver it, so “it’s not about individual teachers needing to feel like they have got that knowledge”.

But Bowers said that did not remove the main barriers to giving pupils a good political education: time and money. “There is this tendency to think schools can do everything, and we don’t have the capacity.”

Matteo Bergamini, the founder of Shout Out UK, said the consequences of not prioritising this type of education were showing. He pointed to statistics from the 2019 general election. “Only 47% of 18- to 24-year‑olds turned out to vote. In 2018, just 2% of children in the UK were found to have the skills to establish whether a piece of online information is fake.

“This is why political literacy matters. If we don’t equip young people with the tools to understand the world around them – and how to change it – then we’re not just disenfranchising them, we are delegitimising our democratic process. Not providing those tools weakens our democracy.”