Political awareness is vital - but who is teaching it?

Schools must encourage informed citizens but responsibility can’t be ‘confined to one department’s corridor’, argues Gillian Freeland

Gillian Freeland

Political awareness is vital, but who is teaching it?

In the few weeks we’ve been on holiday from school so far there has been: yet another prime minister installed at 10 Downing Street; renewed conversation about a potential general election in the autumn; chatter about when the time might be right to push forward calls for a second Scottish independence referendum; and, lurking behind all that, Brexit (yep, it’s still there). It’s safe to say that, politically, it’s shaping up to be a hot summer.

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For teachers in Scotland who teach modern studies (a study of contemporary political, social and international issues that is unique to the Scottish curriculum), the highs and lows of UK politics over the past few years have kept our subject current, relevant, fresh and exciting. As a modern studies teacher, the conversations I witness among my classes concerning the actions of certain PMs, accountability of governments, roles of opposition parties and consequences of political issues demonstrate just how switched on our young people are. They are far more informed than my peers or I ever were at their age, and are eager to contribute to society politically when the time comes for them to execute the rights they have.

Modern studies aims to develop the knowledge and skills of our young people focusing on the world around them. Key skills taught include identifying bias and exaggeration, using a variety of sources to draw conclusions and debating those sources' validity and reliability. When a flurry of political party election campaign leaflets drops through your letterbox in the future, such skills may prove useful.

Scottish Qualifications Authority presentation numbers in recent years at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher levels indicate that the subject is growing in popularity, most likely due to current political issues that dominate the new and social media feeds.

While I am not knocking the enthusiasm for the subject I teach or indeed the rising numbers who wish to return to study modern studies at various qualification levels, it does open up a question in my mind: whose role is it to educate our young people about their political responsibilities? Where should they get their information from for them to be able to make a reasoned choice about whether to vote when the time comes, and indeed who to vote for? Should it fall to modern studies teachers or should it come under the banner of Responsibility of All?

Modern studies is a core subject in many Scottish secondary schools frequently delivered alongside the traditional social sciences, history and geography. But there are still several schools that do not offer the subject at all. For some it is not an option that can be chosen beyond S2-3; alternatively, it may only be timetabled for senior pupils. Some teach it as a discrete subject, others take a thematic approach. How many periods a week – one, two, three? The variations are regional and individual to schools dependent on a whole host of additional internal and external factors.

It does seem that modern studies is the key deliverer of political literacy for a vast number of our young people. If they don’t take the subject, or it isn’t offered, what provision is in place for them to receive that same knowledge and develop those key skills?

The 2014 Scottish independence referendum extended the right of 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, adding more than 100,000 people to the total who were registered to vote and able to contribute their political views. A year later, the Scottish Parliament formally passed a bill allowing 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote in Scottish and local government elections. Wales has since indicated its own reforms to lower the voting age at local council elections by 2022.

Trends from recent elections indicate a rising turnout among the 18-24 age group. That, along with the surge in political party membership from young people, digital interactions and new records set in several constituencies for the youngest-ever MP/MSP elected, points to a new wave of political interest in our younger demographic.

So, what is the solution? Modern studies teachers across Scotland are certainly being kept busy. Visit any classroom and a standard lesson may involve a vast range of questions being batted back and forth, animated debates and often updates being streamed as they are happening live in Parliament – all of which contribute to developing the political literacy that is a vital tool for learning, life and work.

But this context for learning shouldn’t be confined to one department’s corridor. Let’s open the debate to other subject areas, make it a core assembly topic and a key element of personal and social education.

Hate crimes, disputes about immigration and global negotiations all feed into our political knowledge – or lack thereof – more than ever. As educators, we all have a role to play in supporting our young people to debate and participate in our ever-changing political climate. The past five years in the UK have shown how important political awareness is – it is possibly one of the most essential life skills our young people will develop.

Gillian Freeland is faculty principal teacher of social subjects and RMPS (religious, moral and philosophical studies) at Alva Academy in Clackmannanshire. She tweets @MissGFreeland

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