Danger of stifling similarity

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Two months before they sit final exams in A-level politics, students at Havant College are playing a game: "Spot the manifesto". Given cards containing policies from one of the main political parties, they must match each card to the correct party.

About 10 distinctive Liberal Democrat cards sit proudly in one pile, but distinguishing between Labour and the Conservatives is far more tricky. "There is not much difference between them," complained Stuart Huntley who,like most of the class, will be voting next week for the first time. "It hardly tells you anything about their ideology."

Although the party manifestos are unlikely to feature in June's exams, politics teacher Simon Norton believes that discussing election issues helps to create interest in the subject. "There is always a conflict between teaching the syllabus and looking at current affairs," he said. "The challenge is to integrate them into the syllabus."

The Hampshire college has one of the strongest politics departments in the country, with more than 30 sixth-formers sitting A-levels in the subject each summer.

On the classroom wall are copies of The Sun's front page from April 1992, warning people to leave the country if Labour won, and the front page from last month heralding its change of allegiance.

Richard Harwood, who chose politics only because Latin was unavailable at A-level, said: "I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the subject at first but the election has made it more interesting".

Kitty Laing, who is too young to vote next week, also shows little sign of being part of any apathetic young generation. "It's useful to be able to discuss something like 'cash for questions' in class. We have never seen a Labour government, so this could be history in the making."

After peaking in the early 1990s, when nearly 157,000 students sat A-level politics in colleges or sixth-forms, the subject has declined in popularity. Last summer there were about 117, 500 entries across the UK.

Some colleges have dropped politics because of the lack of demand. Sarah Robinson, subject officer for politics at the London Examinations Board and a former politics teacher, said it had "taken a battering" because of competition from subjects such as media studies and psychology.

The board, part of Edexcel, recently introduced a new syllabus which places greater emphasis on British current affairs. "Politics is sometimes perceived as quite a difficult subject and, at the same time, there has been a depoliticisation of society in general, " she said.

Just along the south coast at Portsmouth College, teacher David Ellam has eight students in his daytime A-level group, while six adults taking the course over one year attend an evening class.

"Numbers dropped slightly this year but they have never been huge," he said. "What will make a difference is a change of government. The reason politics has declined is that we have had so much of the same for too long."

The syllabus devotes equal time to American and British politics. Having spent some of the autumn term linking topics to the American presidential elections, Mr Ellam can now look towards events at home. "The opinion polls got it badly wrong last time. They can't afford to be wrong again," he tells his evening class, most of whom are in their twenties and thirties.

Liz Wilkin, who admits she knows little about politics, replied by saying she does not trust the polls because nobody has ever asked her how she was going to vote.

"I don't believe what the parties tell me," she added. "There is too much emphasis on personalities and sleaze."

But Laura Watson, who is voting in a general election for the second time,said studying politics had definitely made her more interested than in 1992: "I watch TV and buy more newspapers because of the course".

Clive Thomas, chairman of the Politics Association, admitted politics has always been a fringe subject and suffers especially at A-level because it is not part of the core syllabus at key stage 4.

But he is hopeful the election will give it a much-needed boost. "In some schools and colleges, politics is quite entrenched while in others it's not. It sometimes depends on the enthusiasm of staff as well as the students," he said. "As this is an election year, I would expect renewed interest among 16-year-olds in September."

Chris Robinson, head of politics at Wyke College in Hull, said Sir Ron Dearing's review of 16-19 qualifications - which should lead to students studying a wider range of subjects in the year immediately following GCSE - might help boost courses such as politics. Exam boards were helping by offering modular syllabuses.

Students are either passionate about politics or bored by it, he added. But even those who have a genuine interest can end up hearing too many soundbites while they are starting to revise for exams.

"Last time around, some students began to suffer from election fatigue and were totally bored by the time it came to polling day," said Mr Robinson. "I'm trying to take it a little easier this year."

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