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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Britain in Europe Open Society Foundation Goldsmiths University
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