Are children really being “brainwashed” with left-wing politics in our schools? Calvin Robinson, head of computer science at St Mary’s and St John’s School in Hendon, north-west London, argued that they were in a piece for the Telegraph earlier this summer. His conclusions, based on personal observation and not a scientific study, grabbed headlines and sparked a furious response from the Conservatives, but the inevitable furore distracted debate from the real question of importance: when and how should students be taught about political ideas?
Most students’ closest encounter will be via citizenship, as part of an overarching PSHE programme. Citizenship will probably not teach political ideas explicitly. The number of students studying citizenship studies at GCSE has collapsed since 2010, with fewer than 20,000 students in England and Wales now completing the full course, as schools have moved towards English Baccalaureate subjects. “British values”, the latest government initiative, is mainly concerned with students not engaging in extremist political ideas. Therefore, most will have to wait until A-level politics (if their school or college offers it and they pick it) for their first engagement.
The new linear politics A level offers three compulsory political ideas: liberalism, conservatism and socialism, as well one other option from the following: feminism, ecologism, nationalism, multiculturalism and anarchism. Attempts to indoctrinate students (and young people do tend to challenge idioms presented as facts) would be extremely counterproductive as each idea must be considered and analysed equally if students are to do well in their examination.
Consequently, students develop political empathy and are given access to the “hidden wiring” of politics. They suddenly understand why politicians propose and oppose certain policies. Unexpectedly, studying politics can disarm cynicism. Many doubted the sincerity of David Cameron’s “Big Society” and yet when students read Edmund Burke’s views of noblesse oblige [the idea that privilege entails responsibility] and organic society they find that it becomes more difficult to doubt Cameron’s genuineness.
Likewise, Tony Blair’s New Labour (excluding the Iraq war) was rooted within the ideas of Anthony Giddens. Jeremy Corbyn? Read Beatrice Webb. Vince Cable? Check out John Rawls. At the end of the process is a realisation that our politicians actually do want what is best for society and the students understand why, philosophically, the parties disagree so violently.
Crucially, A-level politics does not demand that students decide which political tradition is superior, but students love such debates while they learn, and their reactions are unpredictable. Neo-liberalism subverts the norms of most students’ experiences. Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” allows them to legitimately argue that school infringes their negative freedom. Robert Nozick’s minimal atomistic society is nothing like the organic society of post-war Britain (or, indeed, the society of a school), challenging preconceived ideas of what a society should look like and what the role of the state should be.
At a time when commentators complain of political disengagement, political polarisation or, in Mr Robinson’s case, political indoctrination, studying political ideas offers a breadth of thought that provokes rather than frames debate. Students can explicitly place any of their preconceived ideas within a political tradition and are constantly challenged with “new” ideas, many of which transcend party politics. These “new” ideas fuel exciting discussion: are gender characteristics determined by society or by biological differences? Does Love Island and millennials’ obsession with photoshopped Instagram selfies illustrate female oppression or liberation?
Ecologism challenges the supremacy of the human race to dominate the planet and the very paradigms of modern society: economic growth, consumerism and post-Enlightenment human consciousness itself.
Political ideas allow us to engage with a hitherto incomprehensible political world. Students will understand “fake news”; and know why Nigel Farage and Tony Benn opposed the European Union; why New Labour introduced tuition fees and why Corbyn (probably) wants to repeal them; why Republicans are hawkish; why the conservatives adore the free market; even why Donald Trump prefers Twitter to traditional media.
Politics on the periphery
Yet learning about political ideas remains largely restricted to the tiny minority who take politics A-level. UK education has always been politically charged, which perhaps explains why political ideas remain on the periphery. I would contend that a place could be found, without too much reorganisation, within the citizenship programmes of most schools to give students the chance to engage. It is something I have been trying to do with the citizenship programme of my school, and it can be done without too much extra work.
During the recent election, I led a citizenship session with Year 10 and I chose political ideas. The students, like the general population of the UK, were not overly enthusiastic until they were allowed to use their mobile phones and fill out the online questionnaire isidewith.com. This website requires opinions on a variety of topics and, at the end of the process, gives an individual breakdown of how much you support each party.
Each student had their own personalised result and, curiosity piqued, they engaged with the political ideas sheet provided to discover what their political ideas actually were and how they differed from their friends. It was the first time they had discussed how state, society and economy should be organised.
If schools are to educate future citizens, students must embrace political ideas so that they can decide for themselves what kind of society they want. To do this they must be exposed to a breadth of political thought. Mr Robinson correctly argues that schools should not tell students what to think. I would argue that we have to give all students access to ideas so they can think for themselves.
David Tuck is head of politics and citizenship at Stamford School. He tweets as @MrTuck2013