Where now for political literacy?

Written by: Matteo Bergamini | Published:
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Political literacy and citizenship education are at risk as provision is haphazard and reduced. But our democracy is at stake. It is vital we consider political education across the curriculum, says Matteo Bergamini


There needs to be consideration by Parliamentarians of whether citizenship studies or politics should be a compulsory curriculum subject.

Seventy-two per cent of parents “agree” or “strongly agree” that it is important for children to be taught about politics in school. They attribute equal importance to politics as they do to subjects like chemistry, history and geography (Weinberg, 2021).

The question of how to increase political literacy among young people is a debate MPs periodically return to. It is what underpinned the 1998 research – known as The Crick Report – published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (1998) setting out the vision and ambition for citizenship education. Citizenship studies was added to the national curriculum in England in 2002.

Almost two decades later and despite its enthusiastic roll-out, citizenship has not been embedded within school curricula or broader education governance in a way that has had a profound impact on young people’s relationships to politics.

The haphazard roll-out of citizenship is apparent in the last detailed subject-specific report by Ofsted (2013), which gathered evidence from 94 maintained secondary schools. It concluded that “very few ... delivered discrete citizenship”. In 40 schools, the citizenship curriculum was “below satisfactory or inadequate” and in these cases “schools were attempting to cover the citizenship programme in a curriculum period that was labelled both PSHE and citizenship”.

The deterioration of political literacy education is not through a lack of enthusiasm. Shout Out UK serves as the secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Literacy, which recently released its first report, The missing link (Weinberg, 2021), in collaboration with the Speaking Citizens Project.

This report involved more than 3,000 teachers in almost 2,000 secondary schools in England and more than 1,500 parents. As well as the findings from parents discussed above, the report found that 60 per cent of teachers and 70 per cent of senior leaders feel responsible for developing students’ political literacy.


Discrete lessons

So what does the roadmap for effective political literacy education look like? The most straightforward answer is through discrete lessons. This was the approach advocated in 2002 when citizenship studies GCSE was introduced.

However, the Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS) discovered that citizenship was only delivered in a discrete timetable slot by just a third of schools (DfE, 2010).

Similarly, The missing link found that only 29 per cent of secondary schools offer weekly lessons related to citizenship; 26 per cent offer no provision at all. Political literacy is often squeezed into PSHE lessons, assemblies, and in some cases not taught at all. This has led to a haphazard and unequal development of political literacy skills, confirming the concerns raised by CELS and Ofsted.

The reality, as our report highlights, is that “competing demands on time, expertise, and curriculum content are identified by teachers as the three biggest obstacles to effective democratic education”.

The DfE’s 2019 School Workforce Census backs up these findings, as it found that just one in seven schools have a single trained citizenship teacher, and that where the subject is taught it accounts for just 1.5 per cent of learning hours. Indeed, in 2020 only 22,000 students achieved a GCSE in citizenship studies in England (3.9 per cent).


Effective political literacy

In order to embed political literacy education quickly and effectively, we need to broaden the approach. Embracing a cross and extra-curricular approach is one way we can embed political literacy education while also balancing the pressures of the wider curriculum.

Politics is everywhere. So an alternative method for increasing students’ political literacy levels is by streamlining political discussions into subjects like history, geography or even mathematics. Similarly, “drop-down” days with external partners can be effective.


Teacher training and CPD

A big challenge is that cross-curricular methods place the burden of teaching politics onto non-specialist teachers. This is worrying, as our report found that 79 per cent of teachers feel that their initial teacher training and CPD “have not prepared them at all for teaching political literacy”. Only one per cent said they felt fully prepared.

The teaching of politics in schools means balancing complicated and controversial topics and it is paramount that this education is delivered in a non-partisan way.

To do this effectively and consistently, teachers need to receive high-quality training that builds their confidence. Failing to do so places an unfair burden on non-specialist teachers and many may naturally undermine the status, legitimacy or importance of democratic education.

So an effective cross-curricular approach cannot be achieved without working aspects of democratic education into the initial teacher training Core Content Framework and the Early Career Framework.

Alongside this, we need greater collaboration between external partners such as Shout Out UK or the Political Studies Association and schools to create and disseminate resources/CPD for teachers. We also need to help teachers to utilise declarative (fact-based) and procedural (skills-based) pedagogies.


Conclusion

Discrete, cross and extra-curricular approaches all have their role to play and come with their own unique challenges. But not providing those opportunities will weaken our democracy. What is increasingly clear is that this is about returning our democracy to a point of strength and balance. This process starts in the classroom and it starts with embedding comprehensive political literacy education in all schools.

  • Matteo Bergamini is founder of Shout Out UK, an organisation that promotes and supports political literacy education in schools.


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