Let’s not waste this opportunity to revive an enthusiasm for politics

The referendum in Scotland may be over, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg: it will have a huge impact on everyone in the UK, but we don’t know what that impact will be. How can we help our young people make sense of it all? Well, in England and Wales we have a national curriculum subject for that.

With such a high turnout at Scotland’s polling booths yesterday, it’s clear that democratic participation in Britain can still be aroused. If the referendum has taught us anything, it’s that citizens young and old will defy the doom-sayers by engaging with politics when it touches a nerve and if their vote really could swing the balance.

On Wednesday, Alex Salmond urged voters to relish their moment of power and take advantage of it. With the special conditions of the referendum, many of those voters were under eighteen and still in school. They’ve now had a taste of that power and responsibility; how are they going to feel when it’s taken away from them at the next election?

Will they feel even more let down and alienated by politicians, or will they stand up and fight for a greater franchise? And how did their counterparts in the rest of the UK feel about seeing their Scottish cousins given a power they’ve hitherto been denied?

In short, how do we ensure the passion that citizens displayed so clearly during the last few weeks doesn’t dissolve into alienation and resentment, but is nurtured into a greater interest in and understanding of the civic world around them?

Actually, we have a mechanism for this already: the statutory citizenship curriculum in schools.

The new programmes of study for citizenship aim, among other things, to ‘equip pupils with the skills and knowledge to explore political and social issues critically’. This is what the subject was designed for: to prepare young people for their place in an ever-changing political, legal, economic and social world.

And there’s a huge appetite for it, as Aberdeenshire teacher Lynn Cooper discovered.

But let’s be honest: how often do we hear politicians extolling the virtues of the citizenship curriculum? Quite. As a result, it’s losing its footing.

So, while citizens of Britain are in the grip of an unusual surge of interest in the nation’s politics, let’s strike that iron while it’s hot and help our young people forge their futures in a changing nation. And politicians can lead the way by lending the citizenship curriculum the weight of their public standing.


This post first appeared on democraticlife.org.uk.

 

 

Scottish referendum: what does it mean for school students?

Whichever way the vote goes, today’s referendum in Scotland will have a big impact on everyone in the UK. How can students make sense of it all? England and Wales have a curriculum subject for that. Let’s use it.

With a record high turnout expected at Scotland’s polling booths today, it’s clear that democratic participation in Britain can still be aroused. If the referendum has taught us anything, it’s that citizens young and old will defy the doom-sayers by engaging with politics when it touches a nerve and if their vote really could swing the balance.

Whatever the outcome, enormous change is afoot. But what will it mean to our young people? If Scotland votes Yes, will little Jenny in Birmingham find she needs a passport to visit her granny? Or will the border remain open, as in Ireland? And will the quality of life for either of them get better or worse?

If the vote is No, what are the ramifications for the rest of the UK? What is ‘devo-max’ and ‘the West Lothian Question’, and what do they mean to ordinary people?

Yesterday, Alex Salmond urged voters to relish this moment of power and take advantage of it. With the special conditions of this referendum, many of those voters will still be in school. How do their neighbouring peers feel about remaining disenfranchised in a resurgent democratic climate, and would they feel prepared to vote if they could? (Here’s the most recent research on the matter, from the Youth Citizenship Commission.)

The new programmes of study for citizenship aim, among other things, to ‘equip pupils with the skills and knowledge to explore political and social issues critically’. This is what the subject was designed for: to prepare young people for their place in an ever-changing political, legal, economic and social world.

And there’s a huge appetite for it, as Aberdeenshire teacher Lynn Cooper discovered.

So, while citizens of Britain are in the grip of an unusual surge of interest in the nation’s politics, let’s strike that iron while it’s hot and help our young people forge their futures in a changing nation.


This post was first appeared on the Citizenship Foundation website.

 

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All views you read there belong to me and not the organisation I work for. (Of course, my employer may well hold some of those views too, but that’s not the point.)

Why a post dedicated to this? Because, whatever time it is, I’m always a contracted representative of my organisation and should be mindful of that at all times; and, occasionally, I say things in my own capacity that I would probably have put differently if I were writing on behalf of my employer  – and, very occasionally, I can get it wrong.

So, remember, anything I post to Twitter is my responsibility and mine alone. If you want my employer’s opinion on something, ask them.

Alain de Botton has made me angry: novels and news are not the same thing

Alain de Botton has made me angry. I thought he was supposed to be intelligent, not the sort of person to throw Ill-conceived populist soundbites to the Twitter pack.

Alain de Botton - Impact Hub - Flickr

Alain de Botton, apparently with a luminous snake in his ear. Photo by Impact Hub.

What has made me angry? His glib suggestion on Twitter this morning that human beings are more likely to care about fictional characters in novels than real people in the news:

Novels get us to care about the death of people who never existed; the news often can’t help us care about real people who died yesterday.

He may well be right, but only because of his seemingly careless comparison of two very different beasts.

It’s not the job of news to help us care. News tries to be objective, to give us information impartially. It’s hard to do, but the British press is actually pretty good at it – not least because it is required by law to be duly accurate and impartial. This often means presenting information such that it doesn’t push the viewer into siding with a particular party in the story.

Novelists, on the other hand, have an agenda. They want us to care about their characters and they work incredibly hard to ensure that we do.

But let’s not stop there. What about biographies? Biographers write about real people, and they will often make the reader care about their subject. The same goes for feature writers and anyone whose job is to push our buttons, such as charity copywriters and publicists.

And that’s why I’m angry: Mr de Botton is perfectly intelligent enough to know all of this. It seems, therefore, that he is being deliberately disingenuous: that he is ignoring nuances in presentation while taking full advantage of those nuances for the sake of publicity and ego. He knows full well the difference between objective news and subjective novels, but he also knows that his little crafted soundbite will be lapped up and retweeted hundreds of times by people who trust his word.

Who cares about accuracy when the world believes everything you say?

Politicians’ rose-tinted views of citizenship education are bad for democracy

Politicians of all colours agree that citizenship education is an important part of the curriculum. So why are they so complacent about it vanishing from schools?

Spectacles, rose-tinted. (Ok, ok - you come up with a better picture.)

Spectacles, rose-tinted. (Ok, ok – you come up with a better picture.)

There is renewed interest among politicians for lowering the voting age to 16, and most advocates agree it must be coupled with rigorous citizenship education. In a House of Commons debate on Tuesday, speakers agreed that any lowering of the voting age must be supported by a strong element of citizenship education in schools.

But the current situation is not good enough, said Labour’s Sarah Champion. ‘When I asked young people in my constituency about citizenship education and what they had learned about politics as part of that, some of them in their final year of school replied that they had only three or four sessions in which they had talked about politics in the entirety of their secondary education. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a decline in voting, and that political apathy has become the norm?’

Her colleague, Andy Slaughter, agreed. ‘Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum,’ he said.

However, Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake defended the status quo, arguing that his government’s new citizenship curriculum was already good enough. Not only will citizenship be retained in the national curriculum, he said, it ‘will be strengthened’.

That’s great to hear, but what on earth does it mean?

It’s a very curious statement for him to make, considering the new citizenship curriculum is much smaller and less defined than the previous government’s. And it receives none of the top-level endorsement so enjoyed by more ‘traditional’ curriculum subjects: no ministers have publicly championed their revised citizenship curriculum.

Meanwhile, no-one is scrutinising curriculum delivery anymore (Ofsted inspects the school, not the curriculum). So, with no pressure from outside, schools have little reason to treat citizenship seriously or to fear chastisement for sidelining it. Even in the secondary schools that have not opted out of the national curriculum by becoming academies, they are squeezing out some subjects in favour of others and citizenship is one of the victims. As a result, there is dwindling demand for citizenship teachers and fewer specialists are being trained.

How can anyone in government claim the subject is ‘being strengthened’?

Citizenship is still on the national curriculum, Michael Gove made sure of that. Education minister Elizabeth Truss often replies to parliamentary questions by referring to the citizenship curriculum. Together with support from Labour politicians and over-confident statements from LibDems like Tom Brake, there is clearly cross-party agreement that citizenship is a vital component of education in a modern democracy.

In which case, can we please see fewer rose-tinted views of the citizenship curriculum and instead see concrete plans and positive action to strengthen the subject on the ground in schools.

This post was written for the Citizenship Foundation.