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With the Widespread Lack of Knowledge About the EU, Should It Be Introduced Into the National Curriculum?

Posted: 05/01/2013 10:20

The possibility of a referendum questioning our membership in the EU has created much media speculation. Voters may choose to come out of the union and stand alone.

However, a problem stems from the knowledge deficit British people have with the EU. Can a referendum reflect the country's desire to be a part of a union they don't understand? In their Post-Lisbon Treaty Research in 2009, the Department for Foreign Affairs found that a "lack of knowledge in the EU" would be a key factor in abstention to voting. Of the four EU-related questions, only 21% answered all four correctly and nearly one in three abstainers could not answer any.

The issue arises from where the EU is taught. And the fact is: it isn't. MEP's in Brussels are aware of this deficit and are keen for programmes to educate people at younger ages.

The EU is a political and economic union of 27 member states. It has three key institutions with separate roles and functions:

1. The Council of Ministers is the single most powerful institution. Most policies must be formally approved by the council to make them law. They have a 'fluid membership' system and a complex voting system, called a 'qualified majority vote' (QMV).
2. The European Commission is similar to the civil service as they do the day-to-day work by initiating policy and help implement it too. As the main executive body, they have 27 departments. The policy initiated by them is passed onto the other institutions for scrutiny.
3. The European Parliament is the largest democratic assembly in the world. With around 750 members, all MEP's are elected by proportional representation. They sit in political groupings and are a big scrutiny committee who can consult, give consent or co-decide on policies.

Politicians have strong views for and against our membership. Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP for the whole South-East region, argues that we are "trapped and bound" behind Brussels and that our "democracy has been diminished."

"We confined ourselves in a cramped and dwindling customs union. We shackled ourselves to a corpse", he said, "This is a small and declining block. Geographical proximity has never mattered less."

However, Peter Skinner, Labour MEP for the same region argued, "If we're out of the EU, we might not exist. We are seen as a country who wants to wreck the EU."

With such strong views on both sides of the argument, it becomes even more important for the public to know what they are voting for.

The EU needs to be brought closer to its citizens. Introducing a basic understanding of its workings in the National Curriculum could bridge the gap between a media-directed view and an actual understanding. The union is part of the curriculum in Ireland, and yet here, it is glossed over without a mention. Susan Knight, West Sussex County Councillor sees the importance of an EU education:

"I agree. Young people would have a better insight into the EU, not just the negative comments in the press", said Susan, "I would think that it would help the 'yes' vote in a referendum as they will have a better understanding of how the EU helps bring the people of Europe together and encourages democracy and human rights."

Susan also explained the importance of young people understanding how the EU helps us with other blocks that are developing in the world, "Asia, China, South America, India and the USA, few countries can afford to stand alone any longer and we all have to work hard to understand each other and trade fairly."

However, with the restrictions on the National Curriculum, and the very exam-focussed approach in England, it may be a lengthy process. Children leave school at 16 with compulsory GCSEs of Maths, English and Science. Ollie Barber, teacher at St Pauls Catholic College, agreed that there is a need for a wider understanding of European Politics.

"I totally agree that the EU should be introduced in the curriculum," she said, "Whenever I go to Europe I am mortified by how un-European English students are. We are in danger of becoming isolated and of seeming arrogant to our neighbours.

"However, in reality, the National Curriculum is changing so much under the current government that these subjects are not considered to be compulsory."

Ollie explained that the EU could be introduced in the wider curriculum, through debating, assemblies and tutor time, "For me, the membership of the EU has never been so important, but I think it's difficult to convey that to all within a wide school community."

Although educating children can only decrease this knowledge deficit, the media influences on the EU continuously manipulate public opinion. Simon Adams, a history teacher in West Sussex, said, "The media have played an important role in educating people about the EU which has been disastrous, focusing on insignificant things like bananas [banning bananas with 'abnormal curvature'].

"There are a lot of things that should be part of the National Curriculum but emphasis on subjects which promote that understanding of society don't have enough time on the timetable.

"The difficulty is that much of that debate would be media led and unless students are taught who to discriminate," said Simon.

Children do have a chance, albeit very little, to learn about citizenship. In this subject, usually taught in the later years of secondary school, students look at politics, society and democracy but because of the pressure of exam-central education, it is given little time.

Could an understanding of the EU impact the referendum? James Elles, a conservative MEP for the South-East region, argues that the more people educated in the system, the more they are likely to vote, creating a more representative view of Britain. "I have always defended the view", he said.
But, perhaps children will have limited impact upon increased participation due to the voting age, as many are not in education when they first vote. At this age, it may be a simple ignorance to politics which favours the reason as to why the EU is misunderstood.

Although an introduction in schools could only benefit children's knowledge, the impact with a referendum may rely on older citizens to understand the EU and the impact this has on our country. In the longer term, an introduction in the National Curriculum will allow British citizens to grow up, knowing more about a union that currently, we are a part of.

 

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