More than ten years ago, through one of my hobbies, I knew a lot of people on the fringes of politics: councillors, student activists, party hacks and the like. It’s an irritating fact of life that everyone has a view about education and political types had more than most. There was one view that seemed particularly popular in the dying days of John Major’s government among progressively minded people. Its advocates would say something along these lines:
“It’s terrible that most young people today have no interest in party politics and are just interested in single issue groups. They would have more interest in politics if they understood it better. Schools need to teach people about democracy. If they did people would understand the system and get involved more. Then they’d like Proportional Representation and want Britain to join the Euro.”
I’ll ignore the last bit as I can’t quite recall what that was about.
Anyway, before long, John Major reached the point where he couldn’t put off a General Election any longer, and a landslide defeat brought an end to two million years of Conservative Party rule. The Labour Party, led by a youthful chap called Blair (I think he was about 12 at the time) formed a shiny, new government. Before long there was a new subject in the National Curriculum called Citizenship and every school was electing a School Council, a representative body that would be the breeding ground for the new participative politics.
Citizenship was dealt with differently by different schools. In some it is taught as a subject and probably doesn’t do any particular harm other than taking up time that could be spent ensuring that all school children can read, write and add up. In other schools it is taught by form tutors and is a complete waste of time. I still have a strong memory of my year team preparing to teach Local Government at Woodrow Wilson School. Gemma, my Head of Year, told us:
“Just tell them it’s like phoning in to vote on Big Brother or X-Factor”.
“Shouldn’t we be teaching them about Local Government and what it does?” I asked.
“No, They won’t care about that, none of their parents vote.”
One of the other teachers asked what to say if anybody asked which party ran the local council or who their councillor was. Gemma said that it was a Labour council, I pointed out that it was a Tory council. One of the Teaching Assistants said she thought she knew the name of one of the councillors for the ward containing the school but it turned out she was thinking of somebody who had retired from politics and left the country.
School Councils are another matter entirely. Many schools also have Year Councils elected by form groups allowing a lot of students to get involved. Intended as a microcosm of political life these should be a chance to learn about how the political system works. Provided, of course, that we are preparing students for a system where:
- There is no secret ballot.
- The counting of votes isn’t subject to scrutiny.
- The only political issue is the state of the toilets.
I’m fairly certain Gemma used to fix the results for School Council elections. Many form tutors I’ve known did similar things for Year Council elections. I never fixed my elections, I always got great satisfaction in seeing the election of stupid, crazy or perpetually absent students in the hope that it might teach my form group about voting responsibly. During the course of the year I would make a point of telling them that they should be raising their concerns (which were usually about the toilets) with their Year Council member. Sure enough sometimes a student would have a political epiphany and say “Why the Hell did we vote for him. He’s always excluded. Who’s going to complain about the toilets for us now?”
Working at tough comprehensives I haven’t seen any student get involved in party politics. From what I can tell of local political parties when they do get young people joining it’s usually from the posher schools. Efforts to turn the disaffected young into models of civic involvement don’t seem to have worked. They don’t seem to be interested in those single issue groups either. Of course the places I’ve worked at might be a biased sample of schools which failed to inspire political activity. Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that at every school I’ve ever worked at nobody ever did do anything about the state of the toilets.