Political literacy a 'peripheral feature' of secondary education

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Less than a third of secondary schools offer weekly lessons in politics or citizenship education – with a fifth offering no provision at all.

Furthermore, only one per cent of teachers feel prepared to teach politics, despite six in 10 feeling responsible for developing their students’ political literacy skills.

Tied to this, less than a fifth of teachers said they felt “very confident” when teaching sensitive or controversial issues and a majority said their CPD and teacher training offered no preparation for teaching political literacy.

The research is based on a survey of 3,300 secondary school teachers and has been published in a new report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy (Weinberg, 2021).

The report comes at a time when politics dominants many areas of our lives – from Brexit to climate change. And yet, as the report points out, we are seeing declining voting rates among young people in many Western democracies.

As well as focusing on discrete citizenship education, the report also highlights the importance of developing political literacy across the curriculum. It says that key to doing this is creating an open classroom climate (OCC), referring to the learning culture in lessons and the extent to which young people are “encouraged to debate, form and express individual opinions, and introduce issues for class discussion”.

However, the research finds that only 42 per cent of teachers say they try to foster this kind of culture in their lessons. It states: “As a pedagogic choice, OCC enables students to enter into civil deliberation about competing viewpoints and ask ‘open questions’ about sensitive subject matter.”

In the report, author Dr James Weinberg, a lecturer in political behaviour at the University of Sheffield, says that more attention is needed on how we teach political literacy: “A long-standing research-base on democratic education, within and without the UK has demonstrated that when properly resourced, the teaching of politics and citizenship has the potential to facilitate people’s interest, active engagement, and investment in a political system that gives them agency.

“As our politics faces somewhat of a crossroads, democratic education is, then, one piece of a policy puzzle that is worthy of more concerted attention by academics, practitioners, politicians and citizens alike.”

And parents agree. A separate survey of parents of more than 1,500 secondary-age children, finds that 72 per cent agree that it is important for children to be politically literate. However, only 31 per cent believe that the secondary curriculum fully develops political literacy such as democratic skills, knowledge and values.

The study also reveals that independent schools are more likely to deliver political education than state schools. It found that pupils educated privately are more likely to benefit from “enhanced programmes” of political provision outside the curriculum, including school trips to political institutions, political contact and active citizenship projects.

Citizenship education was introduced as a statutory subject on the English national curriculum from 2002. However, by 2013 Ofsted reported that “very few” schools were offering it as a discrete subject and in 40 of 94 schools it visited provision was poor – often combining it with PSHE delivery.

Citizenship education remains a statutory foundation subject on the national curriculum in England and yet the APPG report finds that only 29 per cent of secondary schools are offering weekly lessons in politics or curricular citizenship education.

The report states: “The roll-out of statutory citizenship education in England may have been fast-paced and relatively well-resourced, but ultimately it has not embedded within school curricula or broader education governance.

“Schools remain more likely to offer extra-curricular activities like debating societies than discrete lessons, and at least half have instituted annual student council elections.”

However, the report praises the fact that half of secondary schools are getting their students involved with “active citizenship projects in, across, or around curricular lessons”.

It adds: “This is a highly encouraging finding that may reflect the saliency of a recent and continued surge in youth activism around issues such as climate action and inequality as well as the growth of extended project qualifications at key stage 5.

“The ‘least likely’ modes of provision are political contact and student vote exercises. As few as five per cent of schools are visited by a politician (digitally or otherwise) in the course of each school year. This is a gap that demands attention.”

Lottery of provision: The kinds and prevalence of democratic education being offered in secondary schools are detailed in the new report (Source: Weinberg, 2021)

The APPG has published the report alongside Shout Out UK – a political youth platform – and it was timed to coincide with National Political Literacy Day on November 4.

Matteo Bergamini, founder of Shout Out UK, said: "Building an engaged electorate starts with comprehensive political literacy education. To achieve this, we need to recognise that trained confident teachers are a key part of this process.

“To safeguard and amplify our democracy, we must recognize the gap in our education system now. This is not only about equipping young people with the tools to be active citizens, this is about safeguarding the very fabric of our democracy."

In his foreword to the report, Simon Fell MP, co-chair of the APPG, added: “If we don’t equip young people with the tools to understand the world around them – and how to change it – then we’re not just disenfranchising them, we are delegitimising every decision that Parliament makes.

“It is incumbent on us to rise to that challenge and make sure that young people are equipped to go out into the world and make informed choices, to advocate for their viewpoint, and to make change. Not providing those tools weakens our democracy.”

Follow APPG co-chair, Cat Smith MP, adds: We’ve got a real problem in England engaging young people in voting and the democratic process. As it stands, democratic education is a peripheral feature of secondary education in English schools and provisions vary widely from school to school.

“Political Literacy should be the cornerstone of young people’s journey through education, it is an essential piece to increasing democratic participation yet what has become clear is that teachers are not being given the training nor the space in the curriculum to effectively teach political literacy education.”


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