What part should schools play in encouraging pupils to engage with politics?

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13 June 2017 by ATL
Clare Kellett wonders how far education professionals can encourage political engagement in pupils.

Young people played a major part in the recent General Election - their votes might have made the difference in several seats. For us as education professionals, what is our proper role in the democratic process? 

Along with other colleagues, I used social media to spread the message about the importance of voting and registering to vote; it looks as though that message got through.  Should we take it into the classroom though?

When I was a full-time teacher, I was shocked at how few of the sixth form students had even thought about any election process, let alone registered to vote, and most said there was no point. Are we doing our young people a disservice if we fail to encourage them to get involved or explain how the system works?

There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of space in the curriculum for these things to be taught formally. The Civics and Critical Thinking slots have been squeezed out; is there time in tutor sessions or should it be added in to the catch-all of PSHE, or even RE and ethics?

Political neutrality

We’re all worried about being caught out by one inadvertent tweet or post, by one student’s misjudged comment to another, or by our school or college taking us to task for an inappropriate statement. I’ve been contacted by members worried about comments on Facebook and Twitter from strangers who don’t think they should be ‘political’ if they’re also teachers.

The problem we face is that most young people tend to be liberal-minded. They’re more concerned about equality and the environment and other high-minded principles, and have a strong sense of injustice – it’s natural. Of course, as they grow older, the hard choices of real life tend to blunt those clear-cut principles. But does that mean we shouldn’t encourage them to engage those principles while they’re young? Or will we be seen as supporting one party over another?

We don’t sign over our rights as citizens

However, when we signed up as education professionals, I don’t think we signed away our rights as citizens to state our own positions.  Nor did we agree to never discuss the big issues with our charges. Indeed, the popular saying is that we don’t teach English / Maths / French – we teach children.  As with so many things, it’s all about professional judgment.  Of course, they will always ask ‘how did you vote?’ and I always reply ‘that’s private’.  But I’m acutely conscious that in my role as a teacher I need to remain firmly neutral. I know some people would say that I was wrong.  But that is part of the debate, should we tell our students how we vote ourselves?

We have to be careful not to confuse our private and political lives with our professional ones.  We mustn’t use our work emails for political purposes and of course we mustn’t tell our students how to vote. Surely though, we should be telling them that they should vote. We should be telling them where to find the manifestos, and how to ask the candidates questions (about education, if nothing else). 

And if we are criticised for inculcating our dogma into the young minds, shouldn’t we be brave enough to say ‘Yes, it is my dogma – it’s democracy’?

Tagged with: 
Election 2017