‘In the Dark’ – How to combat the lack of political education in schools

by Sean Moses, currently studying towards a Masters degree in Politics in Cardiff University

We are currently living through one of the most divisive periods the country has ever seen. The Brexit debate has split the public right down the middle, and perhaps nowhere is this divide more evident than in the way young people voted in the referendum. It is estimated that around 73% of those 18-24 year olds who voted in the referendum voted for Remain[1]. This is in sharp contrast to the 51.9% Leave vote that came to pass[2]. However while the referendum result showed that young people seemed at odds with the rest of the British electorate, it also showed that these young people engaged in politics on an almost unprecedented scale. Around 64% of 18-24 year olds voted in the referendum[3], a dramatic increase to the 43% that voted in the previous 2015 general election[4]. Most encouragingly, it seems that this youth engagement did not begin and end with the referendum, with 64% of 18-24 year olds turning out to vote in the subsequent 2017 general election[5]. I feel that the Brexit referendum has positively engaged young people from across the political spectrum, both Remainers and Leavers, and it is the duty of the Welsh Government to ensure that this engagement continues in future generations of young voters. The assertion that ‘young people don’t care about politics’[6] has never been more inaccurate.

The current Brexit ‘limbo’ has created an environment of uncertainty across the country. I believe secondary school children are fully aware of this uncertainty, if not directly informed, then certainly indirectly through conversations with family members. These children have the right to be fully, professionally informed about the current political situation and its possible outcomes, as they are the ones who will have to live with its consequences for the longest. Yet political education in Welsh schools is virtually nonexistent, a recent survey by Electoral Reform Society Cymru shows that the majority of Welsh school children receive very little political education, if any at all.[7] Currently, students receive some education in politics and citizenship as part of the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification, but Minister for Education Kirsty Williams AM admits that more needs to be done[8]. With the Assembly’s plans to reduce the voting age for Assembly elections to 16[9], it seems ludicrous to give Welsh schoolchildren such electoral power without also providing them with an adequate political education.

I believe that all Welsh secondary schools should implement a compulsory GCSE in politics, if not a full GCSE akin to Maths and English Literature, then surely at least a ‘short course’ GCSE similar to the Welsh Language and Religious Education courses that are currently in place. In terms of a basic curriculum, I believe at the very minimum the course should educate children about the major political parties; the variations along the political spectrum; the relationship between the Welsh Assembly and Westminster; and the country’s current political, social and economic state of affairs. Some young people would like to go even further, beginning introductory political education at Year 6 level[10], but I feel such introductory lessons should begin in Year 7 at the earliest. Debate is still to be had about the format and structure of the education, but whatever form it takes I think the end goal of such a program is clear. Every child in Wales should leave school with information and understanding that will allow them to effectively and confidently vote for what they feel is in their best interests and, more importantly, in the best interest of the country.

Of course perhaps the biggest challenge for such an endeavour would be to find a workforce of politics teachers to actually implement this program. However, I believe that as part of a possible short course GCSE, existing teachers within schools’ humanities departments can be trained in the teaching of such a course, supporting any politics-specialised new recruits. Another argument can be made that every politics teacher has their own individual political bias, such a bias will undoubtedly influence how they teach the module, and therefore how their students perceive politics. Yet religion has been effectively taught with impartiality for years, if it can be done with religion, why not with politics? Even if the teacher were to frequently and forcefully state the positives of their own political beliefs, I believe GCSE level children possess the maturity to begin to question their teacher’s opinions, and search for their own solution to today’s problems.

Secondary schools should provide children with key skills and knowledge that will enable them to become positive and productive members of society, and politics is only one area where more work needs to be done. Children should be aware of the rights and powers they possess already, as well as the ones they will eventually possess as adults. One of the most important of these powers is the ability to democratically influence the way the country is run, and to me it seems only sensible that they make this decision after receiving a sufficient education in what, and who, they’re voting for.


[1]  https://fullfact.org/europe/how-did-young-people-vote-brexit-referendum/

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/eu_referendum/results

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/09/young-people-referendum-turnout-brexit-twice-as-high

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39965925

[5] https://www.ft.com/content/6734cdde-550b-11e7-9fed-c19e2700005f

[6] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-young-just-don-t-care-about-politics-10063011.html

[7] ERS Cymru, Our Voices Heard: Young people’s ideas for political education in Wales, November 2018 (Jess Blair & Mat Mathias)

[8] National Assembly for Wales Plenary, 07/03/2018  http://record.assembly.wales/Plenary/4911#C67502

[9] https://www.assembly.wales/en/abthome/role-of-assembly-how-it-works/Pages/Voting-Age.aspx

[10] ERS Cymru, Our Voices Heard