Recently I had lunch with some friends in their early twenties. Predictably, the topic of the imminent General Election came up - I was surprised that one well-educated friend didn't know what a constituency was, nor what First Past the Post meant, despite speaking passionately about national political issues. I don't blame her: I blame the education system for failing to teach her, and many others, these basic facts. No wonder many young people feel that the political system isn't designed to serve them, and that there's no point voting.
The massive turnout and passionate participation of 16- and 17-year-olds in the Scottish Referendum shows that young people - of course - do care about politics and shaping their own future. If Labour enter government in a few weeks' time (which is looking increasingly likely) the voting age, they promise, will be lowered to 16. The Greens, Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru also support the right to vote for 16- and 17-year-olds. Consequently there's a very real possibility that the 2020 General Election will include young voters.
This is great, but young people - all of them - deserve to know how the system works by the time they're 16, to allow them to make informed political choices and to help them tackle the issues they care about. They shouldn't be left to Google the basic facts. This is not, obviously, a call to indoctrinate young people or tell them how to vote. But there is a serious gap in terms of political education within our secondary schools. There is no such thing as a Politics GCSE. I barely remember "citizenship" lessons and A-Level Government and Politics wasn't even offered at my secondary school.
This gap is dangerous for young people. Politicians target voters, and many more older people vote. Only 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the last general election: since then, we've seen tuition fees soar, Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) cut, and young people struggle with jobs and housing. Many fear that they will have a lower standard of living than their parents. Simply not voting, as Russell Brand advocates, will only aggravate this problem, but schools could build on Brand's passion and use of social media to make politics lessons fun, relevant and engaging.
Let's teach young people about how anyone can go and complain to their MP or visit the House of Commons, about how laws are passed and the role of NGOs and lobbying organisations, about the main political parties and ideologies and how the voting system works. Let's teach them how politics affects so many aspects of their lives, from de-coupling AS and A2 levels and tuition fees, to alcohol and drug laws, and to the jobs and apprenticeships they will apply for. It might encourage more to vote, or to participate in political change in a variety of other ways. Let's introduce a GCSE in Government and Politics, or, at least, compulsory unexamined lessons for Year 10s and Year 11s. Young people need a louder voice and to know how they can best make their voice heard. Considering the future they face and will help to shape, it's the very least they deserve.