There is one subject with which many teachers are still uncomfortable. It isn't sex, drugs or religion. It's politics. So, with a general election imminent, how do young people learn about the democratic process? Brendan O'Malley reports.
Whichever party wins the coming General Election, some crucial decisions will have to be taken about the way we are governed. High on the agenda will be Britain's future role in Europe. A Labour government would also be committed to wide-ranging constitutional changes such as devolution for Scotland and Wales, the introduction of a freedom of information act, and a referendum on electoral reform.
Yet the vast majority of people have had little or no education on political issues. Despite the eagerness of politicians to control the content of learning, they have done little to encourage schools to examine how the country is run. Few first-time voters will have spent more than two or three hours' curriculum time in their entire school career learning about the political process and how they can contribute.
"It's one of the last taboo subjects in schools," says Andrew Green, convenor of the Hansard Society's education advisory panel. "You can teach about sex and drugs, but you can't teach about politics."
The subject was originally covered in the national curriculum by the cross-curricular themes on economic understanding and citizenship and is supposed to form part of personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons.
But the themes slipped off the agenda during the Dearing review, and political education is low on the list of priorities in PSHE. According to Mr Green, it often does not get taught at all, because teachers are reluctant to tackle such a potentially controversial subject. "If you are not comfortable with it yourself, you don't put your head in the noose for your governors and headteachers to pull it tight," he says.
Jan Newton, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, agrees there is a huge problem in securing space on the timetable. "We probably do it less than anywhere else in Europe within the formal curriculum," she says. "Surveys show we have little understanding, so I would argue we need it no less here than in the newly democratic states."
The 1994 Young People's Social Attitudes survey of 12 to 19-year-olds showed that 59 per cent believed there were only about 100 MPs. Some 24 per cent believed Northern Ireland was not in the UK; and 34 per cent believed women could not sit in the House of Lords.
The Hansard Society attempts to raise interest by running a nationwide mock election, with BBC Newsround, that is thought to be the largest of its kind in the world. In 1992, 4,500 schools registered and around 500,000 pupils voted on polling day, a week before the real election. The results, which are fed into a computer on a constituency-by-constituency basis, closely mirrored opinion polls, suggesting, at the time, that Labour would take power as a minority government. This year the society hopes one million will take part. Registration will close three weeks before the General Election.
Some of the votes will come from pupils at the Harvey Grammar School, Folkestone, where Frank Conley, head of careers and PSE, is enthusiastic about the value of the campaigning and canvassing involved. But he wants to see teachers encouraged to revive the cross-curricular theme on politics and citizenship within their own subjects, and more time for political issues in careers and PSE.
Mr Conley's school has ex-plored local political issues such as protests over plans to build a leisure complex in a woodland area outside town, and the demonstrations against live animal exports from Dover.
Ms Newton believes one of the most valuable ways to promote political understanding is to get students involved in the process in their own school, encouraging them to analyse how the rules get made and changed and decide if it is fair.
Prince William School in Oundle, Peterborough, has taken this principle to its conclusion, with an elaborate system of democratic representation at all levels. The equivalent of head pupil at the 13-18 comprehensive is the elected president of the Sixth Form Society, who attends governors' meetings and some staff meetings.
Heshe is flanked by an elected head of press, for dealing with publicity and the school magazine; a head of charity, for organising school-wide events such as Children in Need and Red Nose Day; and heads of entertainments, library, and the environment. (The latter organises upkeep of the school's appearance, tree-planting and clearing of paths.) Each year group also runs its own meetings and sends two elected representatives to school council meetings. Decisions agreed there are sent to a pastoral meeting of teachers and the sixth-form president and secretary, and then to govern-ors' meetings for approval. A bid by the sixth form to be allowed to wear jeans was rejected several times before eventually succeeding. But a call to allow girls to wear cycling shorts in games was defeated.
"We want to get them involved in the democratic processes in a way they feel they can contribute, and realise its limitations," says headteacher Chris Lowe.
The president of the sixth form, Becky Horrell, 17, says the fact that students get a say in everything and can try to change things has made their relationship with the teachers very close. But it has also helped bridge the gap in understanding about the democratic process for those who don't do politics A-level.
"It's very important that people understand what's going on," she says. "We hold mock elections and try to encourage people to be political, whichever way they want to take it forward after that."
Although citizenship is higher on the political and academic agenda than it has been for some years, Andrew Green of the Hansard Society says it will never be taken seriously until it has a slot in the national curriculum and is subject to inspection and accreditation.
"The Irish Republic had that debate and it is now part of their curriculum, " he says. "Civics is one lesson a week as well as being maintained as a cross-curricular theme. That is as much as you could expect to do in any country."
The Hansard Society will be holding a conference, with the Secondary Heads Association and the Citizenship Foundation, in September on citizenship education in schools. For information and resources, contact the Citizenship Foundation, tel: 0171 236 2171; Hansard Society, tel: 0171 955 7458; Council for Education on World Citizenship, tel: 0171 329 1711