Political literacy needs to be more than just a curriculum add-on

The dreadful scenes unfolding in Kabul and the terrible future that lies ahead for many Afghans ­— not least girls and women, and especially educated women — are a salutary reminder that ‘human rights’, ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are not just abstract concepts and that we take them for granted at our peril. In the UK our MPs have already had a say, challenging government ministers in a long and gripping House of Commons debate on Wednesday. Members of the public will also want to make their voices heard, whether through social media, the mainstream media or more direct action, such as by organising relief aid. Many towns and cities will doubtless be receiving refugees in the coming weeks and months; it is an emotive issue and people will rightly want their say. At a time when trust in the political process is low across large parts of the world, citizenship education — political literacy — is more important than ever so that young people can play their part as active, informed and responsible citizens.

The health and wellbeing of the body politic cannot just be assumed; indeed, there is plenty of evidence that it is ailing and fragile in the UK and across the world. Voter turnout on its own doesn’t tell the full story but it is a symptom of concern. Different authorities give different statistics, presumably depending on variables such as whether they include invalid votes and whether they count only registered voters or all those of voting age. Based on the latter criterion (ie all those of voting age are counted, regardless of whether they were registered or not) Germany, Italy and France had turnouts below 70% in their most recent national elections. The UK’s turnout (in the 2019 general election) was 63%, Ireland’s 58% and the US’s 56% for their presidential election. Those are sobering numbers.

Turnout among people aged 18 to 24 may have been as low as 47% in the UK general election in 2019. Tens of thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds may not have bothered to vote for the first time in the Welsh Senedd elections in May 2021. There is something of a paradox here, as we know that many young people are passionately concerned about a wide range of issues, such as the environment and diversity. To characterise young people as apathetic is grossly unfair. It is the formal political process from which many young people are choosing to distance themselves. And they are not alone. Membership of political parties in the UK is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago, and voter recognition of our political leaders is woeful.

Political literacy is a prime example of the limitations of the subject-based approach to learning, which relegates everything that isn’t a recognised ‘subject’ to second-tier status, regardless of how important it might be. Citizenship has only been a statutory subject in England for children aged 11 and over since 2015. The Association for Citizenship Teaching reported in 2018 that the number of young people studying citizenship at GCSE was less than 1% of the total cohort. The Department for Education’s citizenship programme for children under 11 in England is non-statutory guidance.

Young Citizens is a brand of the Citizenship Foundation in the UK. It does a lot of work supporting schools, though there is a substantial subscription fee. Its website is excellent on why citizenship education is so important.

Citizenship is more than a subject. It’s the bedrock to a strong society and democracy; it is a set of skills and knowledge that help you shape it. It’s now more important than ever to see our young people equipped as citizens so they are ready for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

from the Young Citizens website

A cohesive society, founded on strong communities, needs people to be politically literate and actively engaged as citizens. This means that we need to:

  • help children to understand how society, and particularly the political process in their country, functions
  • show children how to get involved and become active participants in their community and/or civil society more generally, and encourage them to do so
  • promote a culture of shared values based on tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence
  • teach children about their rights and their responsibilities
  • ensure that children are aware of the power, role and importance of the media and develop their ability to assess the accuracy and reliability of the information they consume

In a forthcoming blog we will look in more detail about how parents, teachers and learning facilitators can help develop children’s political literacy.

Image at the head of this article is by David Mark from Pixabay. The accompanying data indicates that it was taken in 2011 and is tagged ‘Afghanistan’.

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