Opinion: Compulsory political education?

Ballot boxAs a 17 year old Lib Dem, who has campaigned with two local parties and experienced my first election campaign last May, lowering the voting age is obviously of real importance to me. The party’s long term support of this policy (as well as its unique opportunities for young people) were key factors in my choosing to join the party, aged just 16, last year.

The issue is about to see a bump in publicity via the Scottish Referendum next month, and with the general election approaching there’s the real potential that any government involving Labour or the Lib Dems (or both) will legislate for the change post-May. Labour have recently adopted the policy, and supporters of the campaign “Votes at 16” include Liberty, The Co-Op, Barnardo’s and the Electoral Reform Society.

As such, the argument seems won, and young people such as myself will soon be able to cast our vote, and I am of course delighted about that. But something tells me that this alone is not enough.

Votes at 16 clears the path towards boosting political participation in the UK, but it doesn’t take us down it. The unfortunate truth is that people such as myself are in the minority of 16-17 year olds, and the majority remain vastly disengaged. We need to address this disengagement amongst young people via the introduction of effective political education in secondary schools.

The current expectation of Citizenship/PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) lessons to cover this is failing. PSHE, or whichever variation of it is taught in each school, is currently more focused on the individual’s relationship to society and less so on the political structures that govern that society. I personally spent 5 years of secondary school sitting in PSHE lessons that were an awkward mix of sex-ed, friendship advice and health and safety quizzes.

The result of this is an youthful population unaware of their potential. Now more than ever before there are vast opportunities to make a change as a young person and to influence the decisions that will affect your generation. It’s honestly heart-wrenching to see people my age completely misunderstand politics.

The lesson certainly need not be a thorough and intensive study of UK government and politics, but it is vitally important that the UK’s governmental structure is understood to an functioning extent by students. Simple things that promote understanding, like the difference between “Parliament” and “Government”, the role of an MP and the basics of elections.

Pragmatically, it doesn’t even need to be a lesson of its own, but an distinguishable part Key Stage 3 and 4 PSHE and Citizenship courses.

The kind of changes that need to be made to cure British democracy of apathy have to be cultural, not just constitutional. Surely this would be that kind of cultural shift, to promote awareness of democracy. What good is STV if voter turnout declines? An elected Lords if nobody knows what it’s for? An federal constitution if nobody understands it?

So as the most committed party to democracy in the UK, and with our proud allegiance to reform, surely it’s time to look at introducing compulsory political education in the UK.

* Guy Russo was the Parliamentary Candidate in Enfield North at the General Election and is an Ex-President of the Queen Mary University of London Liberal Democrats.

Read more by or more about , or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Guy, here in Scotland we already have a subject that covers exactly that – Modern Studies (declaration – I teach it!) In Scotland, the curriculum is broken down into “experiences and outcomes” – the relevant ones are at http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/myexperiencesandoutcomes/socialstudies/peoplesocietyeconomyandbusiness/index.asp

    Second level is to the end of P7 (age 11), so to some extent it is covered in Primary, but the majority of it is in secondary. It surprises me that England doesn’t really have a similar subject, but it’s clear that something is needed when you hear people talking about the Scottish Parliament and showing a real lack of understanding that things are different here for a reason.

  • Joshua Dixon 26th Aug '14 - 11:53am

    Great piece, Guy, and I echo every sentiment within it. I would love for the party to adopt policy on pushing for a political education.

  • Little Jackie Paper 26th Aug '14 - 12:16pm

    Guy, while I am sure that your heart is in the right place here I suspect that you are pinning far too much hope in education and you are not looking nearly enough at why it is that the young are disengaged. Simply giving a basic introduction to politics and the political landscape isn’t going to engage anyone. When I was a politics student in the early 1990s I truly believed that a bit of education was all that was needed – I believe now with hindsight that I was totally wrong. The young absolutely know the structures of government, they just don’t see any meaningful engagement with the young. Lip service perhaps, but nothing meaningful.

    You say, ‘Now more than ever before there are vast opportunities to make a change as a young person and to influence the decisions that will affect your generation. It’s honestly heart-wrenching to see people my age completely misunderstand politics.’

    Are there these great opportunities? Because I don’t know what they are. About 18 months or so ago I went to a conference on youth politics and quite frankly I wanted to scream. Every speaker seemed to think that youth politics was about hopey-changey human rights, save -the-world ecology or digital freedom (whatever that is). When I asked about things like jobs, homes and pensions the response was silence. Youth politics in the sense of a secure future seems to be nowhere on the political agenda. Reigning in buy-to-let, directing the triple-lock pension into youth job-creation rather than the propertied elderly, winding in freedom of movement where it affects the young and writing off student loans – that’s real youth politics.

    Of course none of this is an excuse for apathy. I am truly surprised that the young in the UK are not far more angry about the loading in favour of the boomer classes than they are. Possibly because they have not worked out what a bad deal they are getting.

    But youth politics has to extend beyond education to actually meaning something. Politics and government have given the young a raw deal. Tell them just how raw – I promise you it will be rather more effective than an hour or two in modern studies.

  • Stephen Howse 26th Aug '14 - 12:29pm

    How does this square with the party’s policy to scrap the National Curriculum and introduce a slimmed-down Minimum Curriculum Entitlement? Or are we just going to scrap one set of prescriptive guidelines in order to impose our own set of prescriptive guidelines instead?

  • CHIS WILLIAMS 26th Aug '14 - 12:33pm

    No problem with votes at 16 provided the law is changed to allow you to serve in the armed forces in a combat role, marry without your parents permission, purchase and consume alcohol and tobacco, stop the payment of child benefit at 16 and send 16 year old offenders to adult prisons. Equality.

  • >I am truly surprised that the young in the UK are not far more angry about the
    >loading in favour of the boomer classes than they are. Possibly because they
    >have not worked out what a bad deal they are getting.

    Maybe the media trend towards controlling youth by political disengagement, typified by Russell Brand. The number of young voters is falling, this election will be the first for a while where there’s a national voice actively telling young people not to vote. Its become apparent to politicians that young people will take any ol’ nonsense and they’ve got little recourse, so they’re the best people to leave carrying the can.

    I broadly agree with Little Jackie, “youth politics” seems to involve issues that usually destroy youth culture. Many kids that got into trouble with police used to wind up making a living from music, now that’s not so easy because of “digital freedoms” (the right to steal other peoples work). It used to be that people in their 20’s could get a mortgage and slowly work to pay it off, they’d often be finished by 40 – of course, that was back when young people could get jobs. Twenty years from now the youth of today will look back and see what a huge stitch-up this generation of politician enacted upon them; a lot of us don’t care anyway, we’ll be dead and had a great time, cheers!

    Under 30’s need to stand up and fight the power. Any education programme would be government prescribed and would nearly certainly act in order to preserve the status quo.

  • Little Jackie Paper 26th Aug '14 - 1:13pm

    ChrisB –

    Indeed. We are currently in a position where a triple locked pension is being put in place whilst everyone is being told that debt/deficits are a national crisis. In this time of austerity we are about to borrow about £2.5bn to send a, ‘fuel payment,’ cheque out to every pensioner in the country (and a good few on the Costas). That alone should say something. And people then wonder why it is that the young think this is a game that they can’t ever win.

  • @Little Jackie Paper
    “We are currently in a position where a triple locked pension is being put in place whilst everyone is being told that debt/deficits are a national crisis.”

    Relax. The great thing about the Triple Lock (from the government’s point of view) is that although it sounds pretty generous, in fact this year’s increase of 2.7% is a good deal less generous than the 3.2% pensioners would have got under the system the coalition inherited from Labour. This is because the Triple Lock disregards RPI in favour of CPI. Labour’s system was effectively only a “Double Lock” – but crucially, it took CPI in to account.

  • Little Jackie Paper 26th Aug '14 - 1:50pm
  • Geoffrey Payne 26th Aug '14 - 1:50pm

    I think that politics should be taught as part of another subject; philosophy. I think that history, religion/agnosticism/atheism, race, gender, sexuality, culture and economics should also be included. The practicalities of politics, voting, parliament etc should also be taught, but that is a relatively minor part of what needs to be taught.

  • Jackie, that’s a 102-page PDF you’ve linked to there. I don’t even have time to read the contents so I can’t possibly answer your question.

    I see there’s a typo in my previous post – the last few words should read “it took RPI in to account”.

  • Geoffrey, I understand your point but to be honest politics at a school level has to be more basic than political theory or philosophy. It has to start with the simple basics – who is the Prime Minister, who is the First Minister, how do they get elected, what the job of an MSP / MP is, etc. It really can’t get to the political theory level until it starts to reach A level / Higher Grade standard, where (in both England and Scotland) there is a politics paper.

    Modern Studies delivers politics along with other sociological topics though – for example, pupils might study the differences in health and wealth patterns within Glasgow, and consider government remedies for these. It also looks at international issues – eg the USA. Little Jackie Paper, that might go some way at least to addressing your point – the kids I teach do at least question why governments have allowed things to happen and how they can go about changing it.

    I know I sound like someone evangelising about my subject, but I really do think it’s an important topic which is missing in so many education systems, not just England’s.

  • Richard Dean 26th Aug '14 - 4:51pm

    Democracy doesn’t work properly if citizens don’t know how it works and what their part in it is. So of course, some basic education about practical politics is essential for everyone. Plus some skills in recognizing how politicians bias and manipulate electorates, through misrepresentation, cherry-picking, the “we” concept, etc.

    Plus maybe some basic economic skills like recognizing that the NHS, welfare, education, defence, etc has to be paid for. Some idea about what Europe means? How to measure things, like immigration. What the police and judiciary are for. Zero-sum and positive-sum games, chicken, prisoner’s dilemma, how one part of a system can affect another. How foreign affairs impacts our lives. Why unbiased information is so important, and how control of information can lead to control of a population. The Internet. Blogs.

    Maybe someone should sit down and work out a definitive list of a what a concerned and responsible citizen in today’s world should know?

  • That the young are disengaged from politics, seems to me to be a perfectly logical rational response, to the duplicity, corruption, cynicism and deceit of the foul political system we have. What we need is not the young more politically educated. We need the Augean stables of Westminster hosed out and disinfected, and replaced with something that the young might feel is worth voting for?

  • Kelly-Marie Blundell 26th Aug '14 - 8:05pm

    Here Here, Guy – something I’ve been saying for a long time.

  • Morgan Inwood 26th Aug '14 - 9:07pm

    Well said Guy

    Citizenship should be developed more but not the American model where they teach politics from a very young age

  • peter tyzack 27th Aug '14 - 9:30am

    we could usefully start by teaching our broadcast media the differences between the terms they seem to use without any understanding themselves .. and ensure that the editors who write the scrolling words know about facts, as opposed to suggestive innuendo.

  • We had one class about politics during A Level General Studies – if your class had a history teacher, fine. We had a music teacher who didn’t know herself. It was a good job my form class also had a lot of Politics students who corrected her on practically everything. Citizenship education now has the potential to do so much, but the difference between how it’s taught at different schools is huge.

  • Little Jackie Paper 27th Aug '14 - 11:27am

    Simon Foster – Put simply, my view of the politics elements of citizenship/PSHE/Modern Studies etc is thoroughly negative. Admittedly it is not the only subject where the concerns perhaps centre on teaching and assessment rather than the curriculum per se, but even with allowances I am at a loss. There is a part of me that thinks that schools are not the only, and perhaps not the best, place where, ‘civics,’ can be put into young people. It would be a very brave headteacher that started teaching the politics of generational loading!

    Certainly older members of my family got some identifiable civics from trade unions. Our media (local and national) seems to have moved away from the idea of a, ‘newspaper of record,’ that’s not helped. Certainly in the early 1990s the media was of a considerably higher standard. And let’s not duck it – the internet has been a disaster for informed conversation.

    I don’t want to hark back to good old days – there never was a golden age and the good old days weren’t that good. If Mary Reid thinks her mother was better informed, that means that Mary Reid didn’t put in enough effort to inform herself. But none of this gets away from the wider issue of the way that politics offers nothing to the young. That’s the basic problem here. And to be clear, I make no partizan political point here – it is something I see across the entire political spectrum.

  • I’d like to be in the classroom when you teach young kids that no matter how much they study the political system, and no matter how much they would like to be involved and engaged, that in truth the political system is an absolute sham and a stitch up?

  • Guy, I echo “Little Jackie Paper”‘s original sentiments. You’ve identified the right problem but pinning too much faith into education. Of those most turned off mainstream politics are those who barely attend classes, regularly truant or just don’t have access to the quality of education.

    I think the longstanding policy should be updated slightly to reflect recent changes in voter registration. People should be entitled to register to vote from the age of 15. This means if your 16th fell the day before a general election, you wouldn’t be disenfranchised by administrative delays.

    I think political parties are the key themselves to civic participation. It may be sobering but it is at the most local level that alienation can be addressed. Some politicos and politicians barely understand how to talk to young people as opposed to talking at them. That is the most disheartening because like others, I believe young people want to be involved, participate in decision-making that affects them. Local parties can work together to at least enable that.

  • Jackie Paper

    “Our media (local and national) seems to have moved away from the idea of a, ‘newspaper of record,’ that’s not helped. Certainly in the early 1990s the media was of a considerably higher standard. And let’s not duck it – the internet has been a disaster for informed conversation.”

    I disagree. There are many possible reasons why the 90s media looked better informed, not worth going over here.

    As for the internet being “a disaster for informed conversation” it has been nothing of the sort. You have access to more sources of information faster than ever before. You also have access to a lot of nonsense but if you are prepared to do a bit of multiple referencing and particularly knowing the more reliable sources (like not considering Wikipedia to be gospel) you can be very well informed particularly of ther areas where there is varying level of uncertainly (the media has always liked as much black and white as they can get).

  • David Allen 2nd Sep '14 - 4:32pm

    Want a compulsory political education, for free? Just run off to Iraq, do a bit of jihad, and then come back!

    (Sorry, yes I know, a tasteless and pointless joke, but I couldn’t resist the thought.)

  • Jessica Burley 1st Jun '16 - 11:58am

    Little Jackie Paper, perhaps we youth do not know ‘what a bad deal they are getting’ because we have not studied politics.

    How can we know ‘the structures of government’ if we have not been taught it? This assumes that either we are innately born with this knowledge or our parents teach us it.
    Although there is PSHE, it is often very basic (mine consisted of one lesson in politics) and only has to be taught in 56% of schools, moreover this number is decreasing due to academies.

    I agree that there are not ‘vast opportunities to make a change as a young person’. More needs to be done for politicians to engage with youth and give us ways to make change.
    Yet I believe this would naturally follow a mandatory political education, as the youth would demand more opportunities to have their say.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • expats
    Russell 1st Dec '22 - 5:15pm.....The reason inflation is so high is because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine...... Don't forget the 'B' word...* *Brexit ...
  • Helen Dudden
    Restricting heating wont help. Black mould has been a culture in the many years of social housing. The lack of repairs, housing that was not that great to st...
  • Geoff Reid
    As a Methodist my instincts are usually to avoid interfering in private grief. However while the influence of bishops in the Lords may be marginal, this is grea...
  • Mick Taylor
    I rather fear that this sort of casual racism is far more common that any of us like to admit. I remember canvassing in a by-election that the BNP won. I, perh...
  • Mary ReidMary Reid
    When my mother was in her 90s and suffering from Alzheimer's I took in a photo of Obama and explained that he was the new US President. "Oh, he's a negro!" she ...