Should schools be voting for politics?

10th July 2015 at 01:00
Not enough students are taught political literacy, report argues

Too many schools shy away from politics and large numbers of pupils were given little or no chance to discuss the Scottish independence referendum, research suggests.

But TESS has also heard from teachers who took advantage of the campaign to fire the interest of children as young as P2.

The value of political literacy is underlined in a University of Glasgow report (bit.lyPoliticalLiteracy), which finds that the concept is "not well understood among teachers", with only one in 10 of those surveyed deeming it of major importance.

Researchers also found that the majority of teachers - in a small sample of 21 West of Scotland secondaries - were against extending voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds, a move approved by the Scottish Parliament last month.

Only about a third of the respondents believed that schools had an important or very important role to play in pupils' understanding of political issues, and their approach to citizenship tended to focus on moral and social issues rather than politics.

According to the report, from the university's Stevenson Trust for Citizenship, there is "a major need to improve understanding of political literacy across the curriculum and to embrace the teaching of controversial issues".

`Anything is possible'

The educational value of embracing politics was clear at a celebratory event held last month by the General Teaching Council for Scotland, for teachers concluding their induction year.

Susannah Jeffries, a probationer at Clackmannanshire's Strathdevon Primary School in Dollar, recalled working at the time of the referendum campaign with P2s on Cakes in Space, a book about a family emigrating to another planet.

"Instead of trying to talk to P2s about what was happening with the referendum, which they were aware of and wanted to talk about, this was a nice way of sidestepping it: we held an interplanetary referendum," she told TESS. "We said: `If we're going to move to another planet and settle there, will we take the rule book with us from Earth or will we self-govern?' "

This led to a lengthy debate and a vote, which made Ms Jeffries feel that "anything was possible".

"It was just really joyful to see children of that age engaging in that debate, and having a degree of political literacy and developing their own democratic process," she said.

Anna Halliday, meanwhile, a history probationer at Lochgilphead High School in Argyll and Bute, recalled how S1s were inspired by the referendum to ask if they could have their own vote - leading to lessons that were an "absolute joy" since they fired up previously disengaged pupils.

"I thought politics might be a bit of a struggle," she said. "However, within a couple of lessons the entire class was completely engrossed."

One pupil started not knowing who David Cameron was; by the end, he was "arguing to the death" in favour of Conservative economic policy. Other pupils kept ballot papers as souvenirs.

But the University of Glasgow research suggests that this enthusiasm for politics is not universal. A "significant minority" of teachers questioned said they were not aware of the referendum having been discussed at school. About half the teachers surveyed in the months leading up to the vote had little or no awareness of how their school was dealing with the subject.

One commonly held view was that politics could be left to modern studies teachers. During the referendum campaign, too, many teachers were frightened of appearing biased - with the need for balance "heavily reinforced" by local authorities.

Two-thirds of teachers felt their pupils were well or adequately prepared for democratic life, but the third who didn't included most of those who felt political literacy was important.

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