Political / human rights literacy is key to engagement with the democratic process

Last Wednesday I was called to give evidence to the House of Lords Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement. Due to the work we do at Shout Out UK and the course we run on Political Literacy, my evidence focused primarily on Political Education. I emphasised that politics is “like a language” and without understanding or knowing that language it is hard for young people to “engage”.

A clear example of this can be seen with our recent collaboration on the Knowing Our Rights Project with Brunel University. The project is looking to expand the debate around Human Rights and we are supporting the outreach work with 30 workshops run in 30 schools across the UK.

Human Rights is a huge issue currently with Brexit and the government’s push towards enhancing national security over privacy, and yet in our visits in schools across the UK (we have currently done 20 out of the 30 planned) it became apparent that many young people did not know or understand their rights. This is but a small example of the very severe lack of political literacy that we are currently witnessing in our educational system.

Political literacy would give us, the next generation, a clear understanding of what politics is, how our society works and why voting is relevant and important. There have been some incredible initiatives undertaken recently by the UK government around voter registration and getting young people to vote. Yet, screaming at us to vote without telling us why or how society and politics works seems a little premature. Like asking someone to run a marathon before being able to walk. You can’t get an entire generation mobilized without first giving them the instruments to understand the system they are supposed to be influencing.

It is great to see the Lords running this committee, maybe we will finally look at this issue seriously, rather than just around elections and referendums. The issue is not apathy itself, it’s why apathy happens. Apathy amongst young people happens because the system has become so complex that people no longer understand it and so get frustrated by it.

We must give schools the tools necessary to deal with this issue because no matter how many times you scream at someone to vote, if that person does not understand the system or why you should vote, he or she will never be engaged in the long run, even though they may vote the one time you asked them to.

It’s the modern equivalent to the old proverb, ‘give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time’. In a similar fashion, if we ask young people to vote, they will do it once before getting bored or disillusioned, but if we give them the tools to understand the system, they will remain engaged for a lifetime.

Video of full evidence submission here

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Knowing our Rights workshop at Amery Hill School

During the course of a full school day we delivered 6 Human Rights Workshops to 150 students in Amery Hill School in Basingstoke. The young people, all from year 10, were incredibly engaged and eager to know their rights. Though they had never engaged with or learned about the subject in the past, it is interesting to note how many of them had an idea of what their rights might be, with freedom of speech and privacy being top of the list in their minds. Not surprising considering the amount of publicity both have gotten in recent years.

It was interesting to note as well that the issues these students care about differ dramatically by group, from abortion to the death penalty. This made for some very interesting debates and speeches at the end of each workshop. The differing interests and topics made each workshop unique and different, underpinning the importance of HRA in all aspects of what we are interested in and care about.

A final observation; after delivering the workshop to over 600 students across the UK, we have seen a clear consensus amongst the next generation that they do not wish to see the HRA be removed or watered down any time soon, and that almost all young people we have spoken to do not wish to leave the EU. A fact we often forget or choose to ignore in the tribal debate of Brexit.

author: Matteo Bergamini, Knowing our Rights partner and founder Shout Out UK

Knowing our rights workshop at St Dominic’s 6th Form College (London)

Last week we delivered a workshop in St Dominic’s 6th Form College for the Knowing Our Rights project we are participating in! The workshop was with 18 students and although some had not looked into their Human Rights before, simply thinking about them in the course of our workshop instinctively made them realise the importance of some of the simpler ones like free speech and right to life.

The class was incredibly engaged from the start making for some powerful speeches at the end! 50% of the students did not agree with the prospect of repealing or changing aspects of our Human Rights, which is a trend we have seen in all schools where the workshop has been delivered so far in this project. The reality is, what the next generation want in relation to Brexit and Human Rights is very different from the they have currently got, which is creating a lot of anger and frustration.

One of the most interesting aspects for the students in this workshop was stop and search. In a classroom with a large number of BAME students, stop and search was often talked about with relation to the HRA.

Britain in Europe Open Society Foundation Goldsmiths University