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'We need better politics education and deeper understanding of different views'

The fallout over Toby Young's appointment to the board of the Office for Students highlights the importance of better politics education, says Andrew Otty

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The fallout over Toby Young's appointment to the board of the Office for Students highlights the importance of better politics education, says Andrew Otty

“I am a Tory,” writes Toby Young, responding to the widespread disbelief over his appointment to the new Office for Students (OfS), “and for some people that alone is enough to disqualify me from serving.” I am reminded of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet whispering “Follow me close” to his kinsmen as they swagger across the stage.

Unfortunately, Young’s lazy dodge of the criticism being levelled at his selection appears to be working well. There’s a growing list of those willing to defend him, which is a sad indictment of the level of political tribalism that we find ourselves in. When someone as vulgar as Young can so easily position his critics as “other” and call upon those who identify as Conservative to unquestioningly defend him, political understanding and analysis has gone badly awry.

Similarly, many of us in education will have heard colleagues in the run-up to last year’s election proudly stating that “I’ve voted Labour all my life” or “I’ll always vote Conservative”. Really? No matter what a party or an individual does, you’ll vote for them? Let’s just disregard rational thought and God-given free will and reduce ourselves to nothing more than a feudal affinity, mocking democracy and all those who suffered for suffrage.

Arguments for ideas

For me, this all highlights the urgent need for better education around politics and for a deeper understanding of different viewpoints. One of the direct ways to address this in sixth forms and colleges is through the A-level politics curriculum. I was lucky enough to briefly teach it pre-reform. As an English teacher by trade, A-level politics was exciting – and a rude awakening. I taught familiar essay skills alongside a truckload of challenging unfamiliar content. The beauty of the old qualification was that you would introduce the mechanics of politics in the first year: democracy, constitution, elections, judiciary. Then the second year allowed you to teach and explore ideologies in detail. Socialism and Bernstein, anarchism and Chumbawamba.

Sadly, many centres chose not to teach the ideologies units. It was possible instead to teach American politics for A2 and this was the easier option. Even some top grammar-school sixth forms were cynically taking this less-challenging route. Instead of giving students a grounding in socialism, liberalism and conservatism – some of the most influential and important ideas of our time – those young people were forced to repeat AS-level knowledge but with the focus shifted to another anglophone, western democracy. The endless stream of lewd and colourful news stories from across the Atlantic were more Powerpoint-friendly than providing an opportunity to explore the philosophies that shape the modern world.

The reformed specification has gone some way to address this. Core ideologies now have to be studied. Coverage of wider ideas is reduced, though. Anarchism, ecologism, feminism, nationalism and multiculturalism are optional. At least students will have a better understanding of the foundations beneath our political institutions. They will have been exposed to some of the best arguments for ideas they might otherwise instinctively oppose. They will have had to acknowledge the potential flaws in their own views. I believe that this will help to prevent the manipulation of public political discourse into unthinking partisan mobs.

Merit-overriding privilege

It’s important that we are mature enough not to defend something just out of loyalty to the colour of its livery. When you have an understanding of the ideas that supposedly underlay our political parties, it is easier to spot when they are failing to deliver on them. New Labour’s dystopian vision realised in Building Schools for the Future abandoned thousands of disadvantaged children to a damaging experiment that has enriched private companies and in no way contributed to the social justice Third Way socialism aspires to.

The Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, in company with Toby Young, advocates two-tier qualifications, to avoid what Young describes as the “ghastly” inclusion of a unitary system. This would inevitably be divided on economic lines and doesn’t sound much like liberal equality of opportunity to me. If Theresa May really wants to make Britain “the world’s greatest meritocracy” then she needs to understand that The Spectator offices are not the best recruiting ground for examples of merit-overriding privilege.

If enough people were able to decode the ideological assumptions that lie behind Toby Young’s writing on “meritocratic fantasies” and working-class “stains”, they would be able to tell him he shouldn’t have the job. Not because he is a “Tory”, because his views are not in line with the avowedly neoliberal aim uttered by his party leader.

Furthermore, and perhaps most crucially, we need an understanding that the core ideologies upon which British values are based have much in common. He isn’t right for the OfS job because he is so at odds with our shared values.

With the growing polarisation of debate and society, it’s vital that we listen to others and make our own case without appealing to simplistic stereotypes. When Tybalt draws his uncle Capulet’s attention to “that villain Romeo” at their ball, Capulet urges calm and speaks of Romeo’s dignity and his reputation as “virtuous and well govern’d”. The major ideologies can each lead us into missteps, but they all have their wisdom too. My hope is that education will bring greater understanding and objectivity – so that we can welcome all voices to our feast. Apart from Toby Young’s.

Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720

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