It was not until I began my A-Levels at age 16 that I was taught the basics of the British political system and some of the important functions of government. I chose to study A-Level politics because I had an interest in current affairs and debate from watching Question Time and inexplicably stumbling across Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People on my bedroom bookshelf.
There was little discussion about politics or civic engagement at all in my secondary school years. Once a week we had PSHE lessons; yet, little advice was given to us about real-world issues which we would at some point have to face. How do we complete a tax return? How do we register to vote? How do we write a compelling CV and look for jobs? These questions were largely ignored, leaving many young people to wander into adulthood without a rudimentary understanding of what adult life entails.
I admit that attempting to teach a class of year 10 students, who don’t yet have the right to vote, the importance of casting a ballot and the process of how laws are made may seem futile. Yet it is important in order to give young people a solid understanding of the country in which they live, and a basic knowledge of some of the important institutions that shape their lives. Without this general understanding of politics, young people are more likely to be disengaged and apathetic, choosing to elect politicians based on the personality of the leader as opposed to the policies which they support and represent.
Young people are often shamed for their low turnout at general elections, but few tend to ask why this may be the case. When students think of politics, thoughts of white men in grey suits comes to mind for many, but Parliament’s still unrepresentative demography is not the full picture.
Some see politics as boring, but it is essential to teach. Teachers need not say whether they agree with any individual politician, but explain what ideology or party those politicians represent, and what that means practically. Even something as simple as quick discussion on current news stories from the past week can get children thinking about government policies and the effects that they have on them.
A more informed population is inherently good for democracy. Debating and discussing issues and learning together is to be encouraged, and inside a school classroom is the perfect place to facilitate this type of open dialogue. Students may not come out of the lesson wanting to become the next prime minister, but that isn’t the aim. As long as they take from the lesson a greater understanding of society and their functions of government, or how they can make the change they want to see, then that is what matters.
I spent years in secondary school learning about the kings and queens, or different types of rocks which is of no practical use to me a decade later. Politics should be added to the national curriculum because understanding how laws are made and why civic engagement’s important is fundamental for a healthy and informed democracy. As Robert Putnam says: ‘What really matters from the point of view of social capital and civic engagement is not merely minimal membership, but an active and involved membership’.