A while ago I promised a group of year 10 students that they could have a debate once they’d finished some work. They did and I wrote a simple statement on the board: “We live in a capitalist democracy.” I explained what both words meant and then, underneath it, I wrote: “So why aren’t economics or politics on the curriculum?”
I was interested by their response as much as anything; I wanted to know whether they cared and what they thought the reasons might be. For the former, I can say that they did. They desperately want to know more about the world around them, whether it’s understanding interest rates, inflation, or international trade. One student confessed that she was scared of a recession despite not knowing what one was.
The reasons were equally telling. A large group saw education as an oppressive regime designed to keep the truth from them. There was talk of an omnipotent “they” who wanted to keep society in the dark so that “they” could remain in power. A lot of students talk of “them” and “they” – referencing some kind of illuminati-style group who control the world. It’s terrifying how accepted that vision is, and, despite it being a long way from the truth, we simply cannot challenge it with the current curriculum.
More recently, I starting preparing a scheme of work in which some year 9s would write an article exploring whether a second referendum could be democratically acceptable. The trouble was, it became very clear that the students would need at least a passing acquaintance with trade tariffs, electoral law, and the history of The Troubles in Ireland – none of which they had.
They were all very aware of Brexit, but, swamped by homework, social media and the whole process of being a teenager, they didn’t spend their evenings obsessively watching the news in the way that I did. As a result, there weren’t just gaps in their understanding, there was a chasm. And I couldn’t bridge that gap, bearing in mind that my focus had to be teaching them to write and not teaching them about Brexit.
The truth is that the world is changing very fast, and we are no longer capable of keeping our young people ignorant of the fact. Via social media feeds, students today are acutely aware of issues, but with nowhere to turn except YouTube they follow rabbit holes and come to all kinds of strange conclusions. They discuss their views amongst themselves, but without a foundation in understanding their rhetoric is passionate but ill-informed, and we must take responsibility for that.
And this isn’t something that can be combatted with what passes as ‘news for young people.’ News isn’t celebrity gossip, viral clips, or some kind of parred down version of Brexit that can fit into two minutes, as presented by someone who looks like they should be on Celebrity Love Island. That’s everything the news isn’t; that’s everything that’s wrong with the media today. The reality of the news, for them and us, is that it is an attempt to understand the narrative of the world we live in, in order that we can hold those in power accountable for their actions; and on almost every level, the news cannot be understood without a grounding in politics and economics.
I recognise that education can’t be expected to keep up with change in real time, but the core values of the political left and right, or the relationship between interest rates and inflation, or the importance of trade tariffs on employment can hardly be called passing fads. They’re central to modern life and will have a real and direct impact on the lives of the young people we educate.
In a democratic society, there is absolutely no reason why a young person should be expected to know all about Shakespeare, Pythagoras, cloud formations, osmosis, and the history of the Black Death, while not being able to say anything how parliament works. A fifteen-year-old in our society could be forgiven for thinking that being able to spell onomatopoeia is more important than knowing anything about institutions that govern us.
Students will be given the vote at 18. At the moment there is no requirement that they ever study politics. We live in a world that is driven by the needs of the economy, and yet there is no expectation that they understand how it works. This is simply not good enough.
So why don’t we teach it?
The truth is that schools across the country will often try to build these ideas into PSHE lessons, but there is a lot to fit in. Unless politics and economics are put on the curriculum, in a compulsory, assessed and formal manner, schools cannot justify investing time and effort into really teaching them. Nor can you cover the political spectrum in an hour a week, while also fitting in the raft of other issues that PSHE needs to address.
I understand the argument that putting politics on the curriculum is risky, given the political leaning of most teachers; would the right wing be given a fair hearing? In response to this, I’d remind you that it’s not hard to ensure impartiality when you’re managing the assessment, and these would be set by the exam boards who should be a-political; and also, remember that we’re dealing with teenagers who will more often than not respond to dogmatic teaching by rebelling against it. Teenagers are capable of making up their own minds, families will continue to lend their opinions, and as long as the assessment is unbiased the learning will only allow students to enter into the discussion.
And regardless of the objections – which aren’t insurmountable – we have to accept that this kind of change is long overdue, and that it is more important now than it has ever been before. The world is changing fast:
The rise of populist politics is a genuine threat to a democratic system that’s already reeling from multi-national corporations’ belief that they are so far removed from the society that they need not even pay tax. We’re in danger of losing democracy itself; and people from across the economic and political spectrum need to understand that educating the masses is the only way we can stem this tide.
Automation is real, jobs will be lost, and it’s not inconceivable that the whole idea of work has to be re-thought. Can we really keep the process of earning money through labour so central to a society where so many jobs are set to vanish? How will we reorganise a future where ‘what do you do?’ means something other than asking your profession?
And climate change is also very real, and it could be catastrophic. We simply cannot allow a generation to grow up believing that 16th Century verse is more important than understanding a real and present threat to the future of all life on planet earth.
We need bring about a paradigm shift in the way we are educating our young people, and we need to do it with the kind of urgency we developed during the war, when entire industries were turned on their heads within months. We did that then because we knew that the threat of the Nazis was real. But the threats I’ve listed above are also real, and rapidly approaching, and without genuine institutional change our nation – and even, possibly, our civilisation – will not survive; and for once that isn’t hyperbole.
Regardless of what happens with Brexit, it would be criminally remiss to ignore the importance of political and economic education in the world today. We need to be producing students who are more aware, more capable global citizens, and who are better equipped to dealing with the troubled times we are living in.
And the strange thing about all this is that I genuinely believe that an update to education, which would begin with the introduction of politics and economics as core subjects, would be welcomed by the public, now more than ever. Middle class parents are often genuinely bemused that nothing is different from their day, while working class parents are angry – and often use it to support disengagement from their children.
I know that the world is distracted by the very same problems I hope to help, but this is why now is exactly the moment to push it. No-one could disagree that a deeper understanding of politics or economics wouldn’t help heal the wounds our country has suffered post-Brexit; no-one could dispute that a better understanding of the role of lobbyists wouldn’t help us deal with climate change; and no-one could argue that a better understanding of economics wouldn’t help put pressure on governments to close down the kind of tax loopholes that are letting corporations become unmanageably powerful.
Regardless of your leaning, teaching politics and economics can only help empower people to deal with an insecure future. And in this respect, the only people who should be worried are the kind of people who have something to lose from creating a society of well-educated individuals who are capable of making rational decisions in the ballot box. Which means now is the time to find out whether or not those year 10s had a point after-all.