Independent sector offers pupils better grounding in political literacy – report

A new survey on the teaching of political literacy warns that the gap in England’s education system threatens to undermine democracy

Pupils in the independent sector are more likely to be given a grounding in political literacy than their state school peers.

The finding comes as part of a report co-created by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Political Literacy, the University of Sheffield, and Shout Out UK, an education platform aiming to bring young people together to talk and learn about politics.

Parents of more than 1,500 pupils aged 11-18 were polled, together with 3,300 secondary school teachers.

The survey found that, while 72% of parents consider it important for children to be politically literate, only 1% of teachers in England feel prepared to teach politics.

Less than a third of secondary schools offer weekly lessons in politics or curricular citizenship education, with a fifth of schools offering no provision at all.

By contrast, pupils in the independent sector are more likely to find an enhanced programme of political provision outside the curriculum, including active citizenship projects, political contact, and visits to political institutions.

This is about safeguarding the very fabric of our democracy – Matteo Bergamini, Shout Out UK

Provision for teaching political literacy was found to be at its lowest in maintained schools in the most deprived communities.

Other findings from the survey include:

  • 79% of teachers feel that their initial teacher training (ITT) and continuing professional development (CPD) have ‘not prepared them at all’ for teaching political literacy
  • Less than a third (31%) of parents believe that the secondary curriculum, where taught, fully develops political literacy
  • While teachers scored higher than the wider English population in a basic test of political knowledge, less than half say they regularly use an open classroom climate in their teaching
  • Less than a fifth of teachers feel ‘very’ confident when teaching sensitive or controversial issues
  • Half of parents are concerned about ideological bias in the classroom, a trait noticeably stronger among right-wing parents
  • Parents are overwhelmingly supportive of democratic education as a feature of English secondary schooling, ranking it alongside subjects such as chemistry, history and geography as preparation for adult life in modern Britain

The report, written by Dr James Weinberg, lecturer in political behaviour at the University of Sheffield, says that there are “significant challenges that need to be overcome before we can be confident that all children in England are receiving a minimum offer of democratic education”.

To counter these challenges, Dr Weinberg’s key recommendation is the building of a body of expertise within the teaching profession, facilitated by undertaking three practical strategies:

  • Rapidly scaling up ITT provisions for democratic education by providing a teacher training bursary in citizenship education and/or politics
  • Supporting ITT providers to embed modules on democratic education within all ITT schemes
  • Working more closely with external partners – such as Shout Out UK, the Association for Citizenship Teaching and the Political Studies Association – to create and disseminate resources or CPD packs for teachers

You may also like: Independent schools must lead the way in bringing politics to young people, says Andrew Bowman, New Hall School’s head of politics

“If we don’t equip young people with the tools to understand the world around them – and how to change it – then we’re not just dis-enfranchising them, we are delegitimizing every decision that parliament makes,” writes Simon Fell, MP for Barrow and Furness and co-chair of the APPG, in the report’s foreword.

“It is incumbent on us to rise to that challenge and make sure that young people are equipped to go out into the world and make informed choices, to advocate for their viewpoint, and to make change. Not providing those tools weakens our democracy.”

His words were echoed by Matteo Bergamini, founder of Shout Out UK.

“Building an engaged electorate starts with comprehensive political literacy education,” he said. “To achieve this, we need to recognise that trained confident teachers are a key part of this process.

“To safeguard and amplify our democracy, we must recognize the gap in our education system now. This is not only about equipping young people with the tools to be active citizens, this is about safeguarding the very fabric of our democracy.”

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