‘Sir, is Eurovision connected to the EU?’ It was this question, asked by a first-year politics student at the end of our lecture on European Union Integration that showcases an inherent fault within the current British secondary education system today: the lack of compulsory political education. The question was all the more startling given that this student was studying degree-level politics.
Yet can they really be blamed for this gap in their knowledge? Surely they are a product of a flawed education system?
We are currently amidst a period of great higher educational reform. A-Levels have transitioned to a two year programme, the International Baccalaureate (IB) is gaining immense popularity within the UK, and GCSEs have abolished coursework, opting now for a numbering grade system instead of the standard lettering. With all this structural change, why are we not altering the actual content of our education system?
For decades teenagers are taught the importance of ‘hard’ subjects such as mathematics, science, and languages, so much so, that passing GCSE maths is now perceived to be compulsory in order to successfully progress to higher education. Although it would be wrong to generalise, these structural constraints theoretically result primarily in a generation that may have scraped at least a C grade in mathematics, but are devoid of any true understanding of the political system that resides over them.
A survey conducted by the BBC in 2014 concluded that over 66% of young people have little to no interest in politics. It was reported by The Guardian that more 18-year-olds have a Facebook account than are registered to vote. And voting statistics highlight that the 18-to-24-year-old voters are the lowest of any age group.
It is these young people who should be equipped with the knowledge to respectably vote upon matters that affect our everyday lives. However, given that less than 13,000 students opted to take A-Level politics in 2013, a relatively low number compared to the 54,000 who chose history, it is not surprising that these aforementioned statistics are so low.
This lack of interest in politics is primarily fuelled by the fact that students are not exposed to the subject at an earlier stage, for example at GCSE. With no foundation of knowledge to build upon, there is little interest to ‘waste’ a precious A-Level on a subject that they have to start from scratch. It is considered to be a more profitable use of their time to expand their knowledge to a greater level on subjects they already enjoy.
When asking some Year 12 students why they have little interest in politics, there were two common, interlinked responses. The first was that politics was too complicated to understand, and the second was that alongside studying for A-Levels, many didn’t feel as though they had the time to research the intricacies of the UK political system. Thus by making political education compulsory in all secondary schools from Year 7, it would help reduce the burden of the task of understanding politics.
In turn, this would increase interest in politics and subsequently induce a greater number of young people to vote.
So let us return to the question regarding the EU that a student from my cohort asked. The effects of this lack of political education on today’s youth were all the more apparent with the results of the 2016 EU referendum – Whilst , many were left confused and uneducated on the actual facts and implications of the UK leaving the EU.
Consequently, many young people chose simply not to vote, or to be led astray by the hyperbolic rhetoric of the political campaigns. The impact of social media in the run up to the EU referendum also played a significant role in exploiting the lack of knowledge that many young people had about the EU. Each day teenagers would be bombarded with images and ‘memes’ that skewed factual information surrounding the referendum. For many, this was their first and only source of political information.
Secondary schools should provide a basic level of political education not to tell teenagers what to vote for, but to give them the tools to make an intelligent and educated decision for themselves.
So is it really surprising that a well-educated individual thought that the European Union and Eurovision were connection? With the current education system, I don’t think so.