‘Democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.’

My daughter used to sort of imagine ‘the government’ was one single person – ‘I want to be the government when I grow up’. We have explained the party system to her a couple of times, but explanation hasn’t entirely dislodged her picture of one ruler deciding everything. At what point do children stop playing queens and kings; when do archetypal ideas of power develop into something more like reality? Ideas about power don’t change without education.

David Carr, teacher training development officer with the Houses of Parliament Education Service, identifies a problem: ‘We know that young people aged 18 to 24 who don’t vote say it’s because they weren’t taught about politics at school, and therefore don’t understand it.’ (The School Run, 2019) But, since 2001, children are supposed to be taught about politics at school. Citizenship is a compulsory part of the National Curriculum at key stages three and four (ages 11-16). It covers such topics as, ‘the different electoral systems used in and beyond the United Kingdom and actions citizens can take in democratic and electoral processes to influence decisions locally, nationally and beyond.’ (Gov.co.uk) Sounds pretty good. So why do many young people say they don’t understand politics?

Schools could begin by teaching children about politics at a younger age. David Carr recommends that a child should be taught about politics when they become curious. Personally I have found five to seven-year-old children to be curious about pretty much anything you say. There is a Citizenship curriculum for primary school children, but is not compulsory.

And – remember – academies and free schools don’t have to follow the National Curriculum as long as their curriculum is ‘broad and balanced’. So I am guessing many of them don’t teach Citizenship too rigorously, or at all; it isn’t one of the subjects by which schools are judged to be academically successful. In January 2018, 46.8% of pupils studying in state-funded schools in England were in academies and free schools. (Gov.co.uk)

How can we claim to have a representative democracy when over 30 percent of the population didn’t vote in the 2017 election? 2017 turnout was up, but only by 2.5 percentage points from the previous election. And how will the children of that silent 30 percent feel voting is worth the bother once they turn 18? It’s relevant to point out here that voting is, of course, only one useful way to get involved with politics. It would require unusual independence and energy for a young person to understand – and care about – politics if the subject isn’t talked about at home and isn’t taught at school. 

Last week I listened to a World Service radio program – My Perfect City – about participatory budgeting: a process that allows citizens some say on how money is spent in their city. (Though the real power of citizens in participatory budgeting is pretty limited.) Children in Paris are involved in this process. Greg Clark, urbanist professor, comments that participatory budgeting gives young people a voice because, “in too many of our democratic systems young people are disenfranchised until they are 17 or 18.” But, once they are able to vote in the UK, only 40 – 50 percent of 18 to 24 year old people do so. (BBC, 2018) Our education system should start by making sure that people are educated and optimistic enough to get involved constructively as soon as they turn 18.

On the same radio program, Dr Ellie Cosgrave, director of UCL City Leadership Laboratory, argues that it is a good idea to ask children as young as seven how the budget of a city should be spent: “if we trained young people earlier about critical thinking actually we would have a more liberated democracy”. I agree that taking part in real discussion and voting could help children to understand democracy and to care about it. But they have to understand how democracy works in the first place. We should begin by making sure every child has the opportunity to understand clearly how British democracy works. Active participation in discussion and voting, which has a real purpose, within schools could be one way to teach politics.

The idea of a ‘youthquake’: that people aged 18-24 turned out to vote in the 2017 election in greater numbers, has been shown to be wrong and things don’t look good for the future: the data “suggests that large, sudden, and unexpected shifts in the age-turnout relationship are very unlikely.” (BBC, 2018)

The Houses of Parliament Education Centre offers outreach, resources, training and free visits to the Houses of Parliament: ‘We have a new Education Centre which welcomes over 100,000 children every year, and also subsidise travel costs for eligible schools from further afield’. I have a few suggestions off the top of my head for how they could improve things – you can probably think of more. The Parliament Education Centre could provide knowledgeable peripatetic unbiased teachers to reach children in schools struggling with budget cuts and staff shortages. Academies could be required to teach Citizenship. Education about our democracy could start when children are seven rather than eleven. Education about politics could involve discussion and voting on real aspects of children’s lives.

There could be a cartoon on CBBC designed to teach young people how the government works. How a bill becomes law according to Shaun the Sheep. (I could do with watching that myself just in case my daughter ever asks me.)

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