Political and economic education is pitiful, and via political parties, the education system and trade unions, it desperately needs to be revived
One way we participate in democracy is by voting. Another may be protesting, or through supporting some trade union action. However we engage, we are doing so armed with some knowledge about the current state of affairs, and having made a judgement on how we would like them to be in the future. For all of government’s calls for us to be active citizens, engaging in a healthy democracy, it is less clear how we are expected to acquire the knowledge required to be adequately informed. Current political and economic education is pitiful in this country, and via political parties, the education system and trade unions, it desperately needs to be revived.
After the age of 14, students in the UK need never study history, geography or English literature, subjects that are often a gateway into study of politics and economics (which are seldom available at GCSE level). Those who are studying economics and politics at post-14, post-16 and at university level are overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, this is the demographic working professionally in politics and economics today.
What is left for those who don’t happen to come from the backgrounds that choose these subjects? Bundled together in a bizarre mix there is the non-statutory subject (although there are calls for this to change) of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) – a.k.a. Sex Ed alongside personal finance. PSHE is often sidelined within schools with the economics part of it sidelined further still, and often given only a few minutes a week, with reports of it never being covered at all.
In an attempt to remedy this, in 2002 the subject of ‘citizenship’ was made compulsory. Branded a ‘national joke’ by many, citizenship is treated in much the same way as PSHE, delivered by untrained teachers who are under a lot of pressure to make sure students get higher grades on ‘core’ subjects. In other words, our education system is organised in such a way that PSHE and citizenship are luxury subjects – to be taught once all the ‘proper’ education has taken place. How can we expect to diversify our political elite whilst treating political and economic education with such contempt?
One answer may lie with trade unions. There is a long and sadly diminishing tradition of trade union education in this country, most notably scuppered by Thatcher’s break with the post-war social consensus in 1979. Prior to the second world war, political education was provided most notably by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) (founded in 1903), and the National Council of Labour Colleges (NCLC). After the second world war they were joined by organisations such as the TUC Education Scheme, and by initiatives such as the shop stewards training scheme.
The history of these organisations is long and complex, but what they did provide was education for adults that better equipped workers and those without work to better understand the economic and political forces that shaped their lives. They helped to explain everything from the history of political parties in the UK to what real wages are. The topics covered in the courses provided by these groups seems more pertinent than ever today – for example, consider how the recent UCU pension strike may have unfolded differently had everyone both directly and indirectly involved had a solid grounding of the exact purpose of pensions, and their moral and ethical rationale?
There are many questions to be answered when it comes to political and economic education. What, for example, is its primary purpose? Is it to emancipate the working class and give them the tools to be middle class? Or is it to overthrow the middle class? The answer to these questions will shine light on who we, as a society, believe should provide the education, and who should be given the power to check it for biases and inaccuracies. There are of course many groups who are already having this debate – Economy, Momentum, ShoutOutUK, Rethinking Economics and the PSHE Association to name a few. However, these groups are pitifully underfunded, and still exist on the fringes of mainstream debate. We urgently need to move this discussion onto the national stage. It has the potential to radically alter how we each view our place in society, what our leaders of tomorrow will look like and significantly improve the state of our democracy.
Antonia Jennings is Policy and Public Affairs Manager at the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change. She was previously Head of Engagement at Economy, a charity with a mission of creating citizen economists.
This article was also posted on the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery hub on openDemocracy as part of a new series on new ideas for union organising. Read the previous blogs in the series by Tom Hunt and Jenny Andrew.