When a 16-year-old boy named William Hague spoke in front of the Conservative Party national conference in 1977, he drew huge applause and acclaim. Here was a sign of the future for the Tories - a politically engaged teenager who was willing to fight Labour even after many of the MPs listening had retired.
Young people like Hague, or the 16-year-old Rory Weal who spoke at last year's Labour Party conference, are rare though. In fact, it was recently found that more 18-year-olds in the UK have a Facebook account than are registered to vote. Indeed, according to Experian, more than a million 18-year-olds are signed up to Facebook compared to only 520 000 on the electoral role.
Though the 2010 election saw a 7% increase in 18-24 year-old votes compared to 2005, this still put their turnout at a dismal 44% - the lowest of any age group, and 10% lower than the marginally less apathetic 25-34 year-olds, whose turnout was a mediocre 55%.
It's not that young people are completely disengaged. The student protests in late 2010 showed that across class and race there are many young people who are willing to challenge unfavourable government decisions. There are many more who take part in grassroots work for political parties, or keep up with current affairs. The Experian findings, though, show that there is still a large amount of young people in the UK who neither know nor care about politics.
Firstly, the distinction between knowing about politics and caring about politics should be made. No one should be forced to care about a group of wealthy people guffawing at each other in Westminster. But knowing why you do or don't care about them is important. The fact that a lot of young people aren't really sure why they find politics boring and its practitioners repellent is a worrying sign. Even worse is that people who do take an interest in politics are failed by politicians, who still haven't made any moves to teach politics in schools.
At the moment there is no option to study for a GCSE in politics, while A-level politics is discretionary, if it is offered at all. Granted, there are GCSEs in subjects called Citizenship and Social Sciences, but these are broad and are rarely offered by schools. There have been few serious debates about teaching politics in schools, although some initiatives have gained the support of prominent MPs. Nonetheless, this situation leaves British teenagers with no real understanding of how society works and what their role is within it.
All schools should start teaching politics from Year Nine, which would ensure that pupils are mature enough, and have enough background knowledge to begin its study. It should then be a compulsory GCSE which would mean that if it is dropped for A-level, that each pupil at least has enough grounding to inform their future decisions of whether to vote, and basic opinions on policy.
The syllabus should begin with the basics: the Westminster model of government, and the differences between ideologies. It could then go on to look at such subjects as political philosophy, political history, the media, and international politics, while always keeping an eye on how these themes relate to current affairs.
A compulsory GCSE in politics is important because the ability to engage with many aspects of society assumes a certain level of knowledge which many young people don't have. Consider the use of buzzwords with no explanation such as 'the deficit', 'the alternative vote', 'Quantitative Easing', or 'monetary policy'. While these things may be boring, they all form an important part of politics and should be understood. Government accountability (perhaps itself another buzzword!) also relies on citizen engagement and understanding. If the majority of people don't know how to evaluate and critique government policy, governments will continue to walk over their voters. It is in the UK's best interests that politics at school is mandatory.
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