Votes for 16 year olds? Not without a political education.

Caitlin Prowle says there is virtually no element of political education on our current curriculum.

With the debate over votes for 16 year olds becoming more relevant than ever before, it is important to consider the fact that, at present, there is virtually no element of political education in the Welsh schools’ curriculum. At present, young people are sent out into the adult world, soon to be taking on the responsibility of exercising their democratic right to vote, without any formal education of the basics of politics. It is claimed by politicians and educationalists, when asked about this disgraceful gap in the curriculum, that politics is covered in the ‘citizenship’ section of PSHE, which makes up less than 5% of the curriculum in Wales. Hence, it is remarkably easy to use this claim to dismiss calls from all over Britain for a politics section of the National Curriculum.

Let’s just talk about citizenship for a second. I spent my citizenship lessons watching films, usually about anti-discrimination and sexual education. Now is this important? Of course it is, and it’s something that should be emphasised in every subject and on all levels of education. However, the National Curriculum says that citizenship lessons “should foster pupils’ keen awareness of how the UK is governed and how its laws are made.” This would certainly suggest that students should receive some kind of political education, and when I read this I thought it crucial to determine whether or not other students from other schools had experienced citizenship differently to me. However, after talking to students from all over England and Wales, the consensus was almost unanimous: not one person I spoke to felt that they had benefited much from citizenship lessons, and they certainly hadn’t learnt anything about politics. This is a damming finding which should concern politicians and citizens alike.

On the 11th of June, this year, a young BBC Question Time audience member questioned the panelists, asking why politics isn’t taught in schools, and why 16 year olds should be given any kind of vote without sufficient knowledge and understanding. While Cardiff born, Labour MP Chris Bryant claimed that he would “like schools to take citizenship issues much more seriously”, he shied away when asked why Labour hadn’t formed any policies to support this. Meanwhile, Conservative MP for West Suffolk, Matthew Hancock, simply shrugged off the question by exclaiming that he loved “the fact that we’re having this debate”, and didn’t say much else on the matter. Why is it that politicians either won’t give a clear answer on why this massive gap in young people’s education exists or try and skirt around the issue, insinuating that other things are simply more important? Is it perhaps because politicians don’t want young people to be fully politically educated? Are they afraid that the anger that is so often demonstrated by young people will be further fuelled if they knew that 33% of MPs were privately educated, that only 29.4% of MPs are women, and that the figure is even lower for those from ethnic minorities? Would they become even bitterer if they knew that the government and the media may as well be visibly interlinked, and that what they read in their newspapers on online is often fabricated and manipulated by people are the top of society? Would they organise more marches and protests if they knew that the class war is waging more than ever before and that 913,138 people received emergency supplies from food banks this year, a figure described as only the “tip of the iceberg” by the Chairman of the Trussell Trust? Maybe the reason young people aren’t taught these facts is because, essentially, politicians don’t want us to hear them. It would be a whole lot easier for those in power if the rest of the population just nodded their heads in acceptance and ignored any societal issues as part of the ‘not my problem’ phenomenon.

However, I am proud to be a member of a generation that is not passive or dismissive or accepting. Thousands of students marched against increasing student fees and cuts to education in 2010, over 75% of eligible 16-18 year olds voted in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, children and young people across Britain took part in massively successful student elections and ‘hustings’ this year, hundreds of young people benefited from programmes such as Funky Dragon; this list could continue. I am privileged enough to live in hope that when I speak out about something, my voice will not be silenced but be joined by hundreds and thousands of other voices just like mine.

What I am proposing is a change in the PSHE curriculum, that will place political education at the heart of learning, giving the voters and leaders of tomorrow the opportunity to gain so much important knowledge and and learn to ask important questions. After all, it was the Greek philosopher Socrates who argued that disciplined questioning can be used to explore complex ideas in order to get to the truth about things.

Through speaking to many fellow students, from all year groups, I have discovered that most schools’ PSHE syllabus covers the following: dangers of drugs and alcohol (this takes up most of the curriculum), sexual education and the aforementioned citizenship. Now, I am in no way ignoring the importance of these topics, but I feel there must be room for some politics, especially considering that PSHE is compulsory from year 7-11. In terms of what should be taught; a basic understanding of Britain’s political history, electoral systems, the constitution, a simple synopsis of the ideologies of different parties; again the list goes on. But one thing that should be taught, and is incredibly important, is the importance of voting. With turnout so low, and declining steadily, I want to see children being taught from a young age that voting is a privilege denied to so many. Why should a bunch of  thirteen year old kids sitting in a classroom even consider voting in the future? Well that’s what needs to be taught; chartists, suffragettes, abolition of slavery, civil rights; there are so many elements that could be considered here.

I will be spending this year and the next (and however many years it takes) campaigning for a proper and complete section of the PSHE curriculum to be dedicated to teaching future voters about the history, policies and ideals of UK politics. I’ll be starting here in Wales, hopefully working with students, teachers, professionals, educationalists and whoever else will give me an opinion. It is nonsensical to expect national turnout and participation to improve when people aren’t being given any kind of basis on which to make their decisions. It is also wrong to deny young people, or any people, the information they need in order to exercise their democratic and civil rights.

In a speech at Madison Park High School, Boston, in June of 1990, Nelson Mandela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. This is true on so many levels: without education we wouldn’t have literature, economics, healthcare, teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, bankers, politicians; the list goes on and on. As a 17 year old student, I am privileged enough to still be living through my education, and I could not be more grateful for it. Nelson Mandela was right, education is one of the most powerful things that we human being have at our disposal. It deserves to be utilised to the best of its potential.

Caitlin Beth Prowle is a 17 year old A level student at Hereford Sixth Form College. Caitlin formerly attended Ysgol Gyfun Gwynllyw, and was a member of 'Funky Dragon', the youth assembly for Wales. She has a keen interest in politics and Welsh affairs.

3 thoughts on “Votes for 16 year olds? Not without a political education.

  1. A thoughtful piece which makes some interesting points.I totally agree that political education should be a priority with in the curriculum. The biggest barrier to this happening is pressure on curriculum time at a point when schools are being asked to deliver more and more…

  2. I was going to make the exact same point as Alys! There are so many demands on the school cirriculum nowadays that it is hard to see where they could fnd the time.It is very heartening to hear from a young person who has an interest in politics and who wants to consider/discuss these questions.

  3. Hi Alys, thank you for your comment. I totally understand the pressures that both educationalists and teachers face when it comes to curriculum changes. I just think that the curriculum at present has so many topics which so many students find pointless and unhelpful. While I understand that some of these topics may be seen as important from an educational point of view, I do firmly believe that students themselves should have a say in how their education is shaped. Again, I realise that this is easier said than done, but it should 100% be a consideration for the Assembly and government. As for politics, we are actively creating a generation who are clueless about these incredibly important matters, and this needs to change!

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