Recently an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Political Literacy, co-chaired by Lord Iain McNichol and Simon Fell MP, was established to ‘ensure that all young people become politically literate by the time they finish their secondary education’, including by exploring the possibility of introducing additional qualifications such as a Politics GCSE, Extended Project Qualification or BTEC.

Although, as an A-level politics student myself, I can certainly see the advantages of increasing provision for political education, the belief that these qualifications will be a quick fix to the participation crisis amongst young people is misguided. Given today’s educational landscape where the government champions STEM subjects, it is highly unlikely that secondary schools will be able to provide quality political education from specialist teachers — especially given many schools’ existing struggles to provide adequate citizenship education.

The Problem

Political apathy among today’s youth stems from a variety of sources. For instance, issues such as taxation, mortgages and pensions just don’t feel very relevant. There is also a lack of trust in the current political system and there now exist popular alternatives to traditional participation channels. This apathy leads political parties to, naturally, cater to young people’s needs less than those of other age groups that tend to vote more. It’s easy to view this as a vicious cycle, but the thinking goes that it could be broken with improved political education.

However, there is very little evidence to suggest that young people are enthusiastic about becoming more politically literate through qualifications. According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, in 2020 only 2.3 per cent of A-level students received grades in a politics-related subject, so even if provision was increased for more qualifications it’s not a fact that more students would be inclined to choose Politics GCSE. And among the ones that might, given the low numbers of specialised teachers of secondary school Citizenship (a precursor of sorts to A-level Politics) it is unlikely they would be taught by a teacher who studied the subject at undergraduate or postgraduate level.

Despite Citizenship being part of the National Curriculum since 2001, a 2015 study by Diana Burton on citizenship education in seven schools in the Greater Merseyside area found that within those seven schools, none of their Citizenship teachers had specialised in the subject at university or been recruited by their schools specifically as a Citizenship teacher.

This leaves me with a question: if in the 14 years between Citizenship becoming a mandatory subject and Burton’s study there was very little improvement in the number of specialised staff to teach it, how long would it take for secondary schools to employ sufficiently qualified teachers of GCSE or BTEC Politics, particularly when most bursaries and scholarships to encourage more people to become teachers are in STEM subjects? Answer: not until today’s youth are in their mid-30s, at least. 

The Solution

So where do we go from here? It’s all well and good criticising the proposals as unrealistic but what can we do instead to improve political literacy among young people? The answer lies in one of the main reasons I listed above for teenage political apathy — alternative forms of participation. After all, why vote for a candidate who may not be able to deliver what they promise when you can help enact change by spending a few seconds signing an e-petition for free? Media is constantly evolving, and UK politics needs to catch up if it wants to make its youth more politically literate.

Partially thanks to lockdown, there was a 21 per cent increase in podcast listening on BBC Sounds in 2020 so why not capitalise on this fast-growing industry to increase political literacy? While several podcasts have been produced by Parliament in recent years, none of them are focused on students and many independent youth politics podcasts have seen success filling the gap. My own sixth form college started a student politics podcast four months ago with no professional equipment or advertising other than its social media presence, and it has already surpassed 300 total plays. Imagine translating the small-scale success of one college to a Parliament-backed production, with lots more money to spend on advertising, high-profile presenters, guests and proper equipment. And I’m sure young people would tune in their droves, especially right now when the words of ministers dictate what we can and cannot do. 

Pupils would doubtlessly heed messages better if they were expressed in podcast form than if they had to worry about being examined on them as part of a Politics GCSE, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The BBC is already airing educational TV programmes throughout lockdown, so the government could easily jump on the bandwagon and commission educational political shows that appeal to young people — it’s just a case of adapting an older system to newer, more popular types of media. 

Ulitmately …

In short, although the aims of the APPG are justified and lack of political literacy is a key concern in society, a combination of educational and extracurricular approaches would work better than qualifications that would likely be understaffed, undervalued and therefore underperforming given the trajectory of similar qualifications in the past. It’s time for the government to embrace the alternatives rather than focus participation on declining political avenues like party membership. And if they become early adopters, in time they could make a real change in empowering the youths of today to become the voters and politicians of tomorrow. 

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