Join the de­bate

Pol­i­tics lessons aren’t about ‘brain­wash­ing’ chil­dren – they are about pre­sent­ing a range of ideas so the stu­dents can make their own minds up. Schools have a duty to tackle the sub­ject, says David Tuck

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

Pol­i­tics lessons are em­pow­er­ing, not brain­wash­ing, says one teacher

ARE CHIL­DREN re­ally be­ing “brain­washed” with left-wing pol­i­tics in our schools? Calvin Robin­son, head of com­puter sci­ence at St Mary’s and St John’s School in Hen­don, north-west Lon­don, ar­gued that they were in a piece for the Tele­graph ear­lier this sum­mer. His con­clu­sions, based on per­sonal ob­ser­va­tion and not a sci­en­tific study, grabbed head­lines and sparked a fu­ri­ous re­sponse from the Con­ser­va­tives, but the in­evitable furore dis­tracted de­bate from the real ques­tion of im­por­tance: when and how should stu­dents be taught about po­lit­i­cal ideas?

Most stu­dents’ clos­est en­counter will be via cit­i­zen­ship, as part of an over­ar­ch­ing PSHE pro­gramme. Cit­i­zen­ship will prob­a­bly not teach po­lit­i­cal ideas ex­plic­itly. The num­ber of stu­dents study­ing cit­i­zen­ship stud­ies at GCSE has col­lapsed since 2010, with fewer than 20,000 stu­dents in Eng­land and Wales now com­plet­ing the full course, as schools have moved to­wards English Bac­calau­re­ate sub­jects. “Bri­tish val­ues”, the lat­est gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive, is mainly con­cerned with stu­dents not en­gag­ing in ex­trem­ist po­lit­i­cal ideas. There­fore, most will have to wait un­til A-level pol­i­tics (if their school or col­lege of­fers it and they pick it) for their first en­gage­ment.

The new lin­ear pol­i­tics A level of­fers three com­pul­sory po­lit­i­cal ideas: lib­er­al­ism, con­ser­vatism and so­cial­ism, as well one other op­tion from the fol­low­ing: fem­i­nism, ecol­o­gism, na­tion­al­ism, mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and an­ar­chism. At­tempts to in­doc­tri­nate stu­dents (and young peo­ple do tend to chal­lenge id­ioms pre­sented as facts) would be ex­tremely coun­ter­pro­duc­tive as each idea must be con­sid­ered and an­a­lysed equally if stu­dents are to do well in their ex­am­i­na­tion.

Con­se­quently, stu­dents de­velop po­lit­i­cal em­pa­thy and are given ac­cess to the “hid­den wiring” of pol­i­tics. They sud­denly un­der­stand why politi­cians pro­pose and op­pose cer­tain poli­cies. Un­ex­pect­edly, study­ing pol­i­tics can dis­arm cyn­i­cism. Many doubted the sin­cer­ity of David Cameron’s “Big So­ci­ety” and yet when stu­dents read Ed­mund Burke’s views of no­blesse oblige [the idea that priv­i­lege en­tails re­spon­si­bil­ity] and or­ganic so­ci­ety they find that it be­comes more dif­fi­cult to doubt Cameron’s gen­uine­ness.

Like­wise, Tony Blair’s New Labour (ex­clud­ing the Iraq war) was rooted within the ideas of An­thony Gid­dens. Jeremy Cor­byn? Read Beatrice Webb. Vince Ca­ble? Check out John Rawls. At the end of the process is a re­al­i­sa­tion that our politi­cians ac­tu­ally do want what is best for so­ci­ety and the stu­dents un­der­stand why, philo­soph­i­cally, the par­ties dis­agree so vi­o­lently.

Spark­ing de­bate

Cru­cially, A-level pol­i­tics does not de­mand that stu­dents de­cide which po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion is su­pe­rior, but stu­dents love such de­bates while they learn, and their re­ac­tions are un­pre­dictable. Neo-lib­er­al­ism sub­verts the norms of most stu­dents’ ex­pe­ri­ences. Ayn Rand’s “virtue of self­ish­ness” al­lows them to le­git­i­mately ar­gue that school in­fringes their neg­a­tive free­dom. Robert Noz­ick’s min­i­mal atom­istic so­ci­ety is noth­ing like the or­ganic so­ci­ety of post-war Bri­tain (or, in­deed, the so­ci­ety of a school), chal­leng­ing pre­con­ceived ideas of what a so­ci­ety should look like and what the role of the state should be.

At a time when com­men­ta­tors com­plain of po­lit­i­cal dis­en­gage­ment, po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion or, in Mr Robin­son’s case, po­lit­i­cal in­doc­tri­na­tion, study­ing po­lit­i­cal ideas of­fers a breadth of thought that pro­vokes rather than frames de­bate. Stu­dents can ex­plic­itly place any of their pre­con­ceived ideas within a po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion and are con­stantly chal­lenged with “new” ideas, many of which tran­scend party pol­i­tics. Th­ese “new” ideas fuel ex­cit­ing dis­cus­sion: are gen­der char­ac­ter­is­tics de­ter­mined by so­ci­ety or by bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences? Does Love Is­land and mil­len­ni­als’ ob­ses­sion with pho­to­shopped In­sta­gram self­ies il­lus­trate fe­male op­pres­sion or lib­er­a­tion?

Ecol­o­gism chal­lenges the supremacy of the hu­man race to dom­i­nate the planet and the very par­a­digms of mod­ern so­ci­ety: eco­nomic growth, con­sumerism and post-en­light­en­ment hu­man con­scious­ness it­self.

Po­lit­i­cal ideas al­low us to en­gage with a hith­erto in­com­pre­hen­si­ble po­lit­i­cal world. Stu­dents will un­der­stand “fake news”; and

know why Nigel Farage and Tony Benn op­posed the Euro­pean Union; why New Labour in­tro­duced tu­ition fees and why Cor­byn (prob­a­bly) wants to re­peal them; why Repub­li­cans are hawk­ish; why the con­ser­va­tives adore the free mar­ket; even why Don­ald Trump prefers Twit­ter to tra­di­tional me­dia.

Yet learn­ing about po­lit­i­cal ideas re­mains largely re­stricted to the tiny mi­nor­ity who take pol­i­tics A-level. UK ed­u­ca­tion has al­ways been po­lit­i­cally charged, which per­haps ex­plains why po­lit­i­cal ideas re­main on the pe­riph­ery. I would con­tend that a place could be found, with­out too much re­or­gan­i­sa­tion, within the cit­i­zen­ship pro­grammes of most schools to give stu­dents the chance to en­gage. It is some­thing I have been try­ing to do with the cit­i­zen­ship pro­gramme of my school, and it can be done with­out too much ex­tra work.

Dur­ing the re­cent elec­tion, I led a cit­i­zen­ship ses­sion with Year 10 and I chose po­lit­i­cal ideas. The stu­dents, like the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion of the UK, were not overly en­thu­si­as­tic un­til they were al­lowed to use their mo­bile phones and fill out the on­line ques­tion­naire iside­with.com. This web­site re­quires opin­ions on a va­ri­ety of top­ics and, at the end of the process, gives an in­di­vid­ual break­down of how much you sup­port each party.

Each stu­dent had their own per­son­alised re­sult and, cu­rios­ity piqued, they en­gaged with the po­lit­i­cal ideas sheet pro­vided to dis­cover what their po­lit­i­cal ideas ac­tu­ally were and how they dif­fered from their friends. It was the first time they had dis­cussed how state, so­ci­ety and econ­omy should be or­gan­ised.

If schools are to ed­u­cate fu­ture cit­i­zens, stu­dents must em­brace po­lit­i­cal ideas so that they can de­cide for them­selves what kind of so­ci­ety they want. To do this they must be ex­posed to a breadth of po­lit­i­cal thought. Mr Robin­son cor­rectly ar­gues that schools should not tell stu­dents what to think. I would ar­gue that we have to give all stu­dents ac­cess to ideas so they can think for them­selves. David Tuck is head of pol­i­tics and cit­i­zen­ship at Stam­ford School. He tweets as @Mr­tuck2013

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