The next time the UK has a general election, the newest generation of voters will have come from an age of political and economic uncertainty. The 2007-2008 global financial crash/recession shaped all our childhoods. The covid-19 pandemic impacted our education and personal and social development. There are growing concerns about climate change and animal welfare. The fight for greater protection of human rights for all people means that we have severe issues to address socially, culturally, and politically when we vote. However, are we equipped with the knowledge and understanding to do so properly? Despite some reforms, there are increasing concerns that there is a severe lack of political, civic, and democratic education. Greater political literacy and civic education are needed, and it’s needed now.
Currently, in the English education system, citizenship programmes are compulsory in both key stage 3 and key stage 4. According to the National Curriculum, students should achieve an understanding of the UK political system and the different branches, as well as how to participate in democracy. Despite this, Shout Out UK researched 2,500 British citizens, found that “85% of participants felt they left school with little to no political knowledge” and only 31% of 18-25 respondents “understand how the voting system works”. To add to this, there is a growing concern about the discrepancies in the provision of democratic education, especially in comparison of public and private schools.
A fundamental element of politics is it being interactive with society and its citizens. This raises the question: how can we participate if we do not fully understand what we are participating in? Civic education can be described according to Farmer (2022) as “a study of the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, including the law and government, with a focus on the skills necessary to participate in the healthy functioning of the democracy”. This need and the idea of civic and political education is not new. Aristotle (c 340 BC) argued that “if liberty and equality is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost”. So, greater political and civic education is needed for this to happen. Civic education must promote an understanding of the ideals of democracy and the values and principles of democracy. It is argued by many that this must be taught in an unbiased way, not painting democratic systems as utopias. For this reason, it is vital that civic and political education is taught impartially and whilst it is a political subject, it should not be politicised
This does lead us to ask, what should political/civic education entail? The Democratic Audit UK promotes compulsory political education in the UK education and Shout Out UK argues that political education should teach young people the workings of government (including the separate branches and their roles), the legislative process, the “differences in neighbouring democracies” and how young people can become directly involved in British politics.
There are huge benefits to implementing greater political education in schools. It promotes interest, but this needs to be consistent, not just at times of political and national importance such as Brexit. If young people have a greater understanding of democracy, it can help prevent misinformation. We live during a time of mass media, surrounded by fake news and conspiracy theories which can, at times, be hard to detect. It is much harder to deceive and blindside people who understand not just the democratic and political system, but the rights themselves and others have. It is argued that mandatory political education would increase the number of young people at polls, increase political engagement as a whole and decrease the levels of vitriol and misinformation. In the 2019 general election, voter turnout for 18-24-year-olds was 47%. Similarly, 18-24-year-olds were the age group that was both most likely to feel getting involved in politics was ineffective and the least likely to have participated in any political activity.
By creating a greater emphasis on political education, we create greater transparency and interest around the decision-making process. It is much more difficult to blindside people who know the same as you do. People will be more equipped to call out injustices whether that is through judicial review, protesting or other resources. It will allow for younger people to feel more involved in politics and not just be interested in the society they live in but care about it. If they feel as though it is an out-of-reach dead-end, they are not going to want to get involved. There has been a failure in governments to address the issues that young people care about, causing them to lose interest. But if it is made more accessible through knowledge, the power younger generations can have through politics and participating can be a real game changer.