Youth participation in politics is at an all-time low. Connecting young people to decision-making and reinvigorating the democratic spirit amongst the youth of Britain starts in the classroom, writes Simon Fell.

The debate around how to remedy falling rates of democratic participation among younger generations is a recurring one. This was the debate in 2002 when citizenship studies was added to the National Curriculum in England. Introducing citizenship in 2002 now appears to have been the easy bit. Providing £15m to facilitate programmes of study and schemes of work seemed at the time to be a substantial investment. However, while the rollout of citizenship education in England may have been fast-paced and relatively well-resourced, ultimately it has not been embedded within school curricula or broader education governance in a way that has had a profound impact on young people's relationships to politics.

The 2019 School Workforce Census suggests that just one in seven schools have a single trained citizenship teacher. Where the subject is taught or reported to be taught, it accounts for just 1.5 per cent of learning hours. The last detailed subject-specific report by Ofsted, published in 2013 and that gathered evidence from 94 maintained secondary schools, concluded that 'very few of the schools visited delivered discrete citizenship across the secondary age range'; in 40 schools the citizenship curriculum was 'below satisfactory or inadequate'; and in these cases, 'schools were attempting to cover the citizenship programme in a curriculum period that was labelled both PSHE and citizenship'. In 2018, the House of Lords declared that 'the Government has allowed citizenship education in England to degrade to a parlous state. The decline of the subject must be assessed in its totality as a matter of urgency'. What is clear is that scant provisions and a lack of teacher training have stopped the potential of citizenship education being realised.

Yet the research is clear, young people with a positive track record of active citizenship and political literacy education are more likely to go on to vote in elections and participate in a wide variety of other political activities. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians to ensure that political literacy education is considered a priority in the classroom.

In my capacity as co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Literacy, I have been able to listen to stakeholders, academics and other parliamentarians, as well as discuss with them how to embed political literacy education more effectively into the curriculum. We recently produced a piece of research in collaboration with the Speaking Citizens Project through the Knowledge Exchange funding from the University of Sussex, titled 'The Missing Link'. This report is the largest data set we have on political literacy provisions in schools since 2010. The research involved 3,000 plus teachers in almost 2,000 English secondary schools and more than 1,500 parents with school-aged children, providing us with a true representation of teachers' and parents' attitudes towards the existing provision of political literacy education in England. It explores how political literacy education is delivered in secondary schools, and it captures some of the obstacles and perceptions educators have about their ability to provide it effectively. It also touches on concerns around delivering non-partisan political literacy education.

So why is political literacy not prioritised within the existing curriculum? Not only do a large portion of teachers feel responsible for teaching politics, but we also see that parents are overwhelmingly supportive of democratic education – 72 per cent of parents 'agree' or strongly agree' that it is important for children to be taught about politics in school. They also attribute equal importance to politics as subjects like chemistry, history and geography.

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The first barrier to embedding effective political literacy education appears to be time. According to the Missing Link report, 'only 29 per cent of schools offer weekly lessons related to citizenship education, but 26 per cent of secondary schools offer no provision at all'. Schools are under enormous pressure to perform. In between GCSEs, A-levels and examination preparation, there often is not enough space within the curriculum to prioritise non-core subjects. This often means that political literacy education is squeezed in PSHE lessons, assemblies and in some cases not taught at all. This has led to a haphazard and unequal development of political literacy skills, thereby confirming Ofsted's trends from 2013.The second biggest obstacle to effective democratic education is teacher expertise. The 2013 Ofsted report on statutory citizenship education noted:

'[w]hen the subject was taught by enthusiastic expert teachers who demonstrated specialist knowledge gained through specialist training or experience with support when in post, lessons were more likely to be successful in securing good progress'.

It makes sense that teachers with bespoke training or continuous professional development opportunities in politics or citizenship education will be better equipped to deliver a high-quality learning experience. Yet, the recent report by the APPG on Political Literacy found that worryingly, 79 per cent of teachers feel that their initial teacher training (ITT) and continuous professional development training (CPD) have 'not prepared them at all' for teaching political literacy. Only 1 per cent feel fully prepared. Alongside this, only 15 per cent of teachers feel 'very confident' discussing controversial issues in class, meaning at the moment, educators are not adequately equipped to build a safe classroom environment where pressing political and social topics can be covered.

Levels of complete unpreparedness are also considerably higher among teachers in the arts (82 per cent) and STEM subjects like maths (88 per cent) and science (85 per cent). We need to prioritise political literacy education. We need to ensure that we have well-skilled and well-equipped teaching professionals that know how to embed political and media literacy practices within their teaching. Young people will continue to be exposed to unprecedented levels of mis- and disinformation online. While we cannot stop this, we can transform the classrooms into safe spaces where young people's concerns can be addressed and their emotional resilience built.

To achieve this, we need to rapidly scale up initial teacher training (ITT) provisions for democratic education by introducing a teacher training bursary in citizenship education and/or politics. We also need to strengthen the existing support offered to ITT providers, enabling them to embed democratic education modules within all ITT schemes by working democratic education aspects into the ITT Core Content Framework and the Early Career Framework. Furthermore, there is a range of political literacy providers that have England-wide networks of teachers and schools and are in an excellent position to create and disseminate political and media literacy resources or CPD packs for teachers. This will strengthen educators' abilities to use these resources both during discrete subjects, such as citizenship studies and other specialisms.

This report comes at a crucial time, as the threat of misinformation and disinformation continues to rise and trust in our democratic system continues to fall. The APPG's report is timely, as it provides both evidence about the current state of political literacy education in our schools, as well as practical strategies for decision-makers to implement. As we ascertain how to increase levels of political literacy amongst the next generation, renew their relationship to politics and improve teachers' capacity to be a part of this process, it is important that we continue to follow the same research and evidence-based approach to education policymaking.

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