Our crisis of politics is also a crisis of education. Quite simply, we do not have an education system fit for purpose in the 21st century. We do not learn how to learn well. We do not teach how to challenge. We have a political debate around education that is backwards looking and focused on form not function. Stuck in a rut between the small c conservatism of both left and right we are failing the next generation just as we have failed generations that have come before.
The question we need to address is not whether or not children study the classics or whether they do them in academies, grammar or free schools. Instead we should be looking at how we equip our future citizens to be able to fully participate in the world they live in. How to develop in them as much agency over their lives and choices as possible. Not just in the skills that equip them to succeed in their careers but in all other arenas of life too.
In part this means both more and better vocational education and a relationship between local schools and local employers that goes much deeper than a visit on careers day. Respecting the skills taught through vocational schools and apprenticeships and recognising their value by making them more attractive to the young people who will benefit will be essential in plugging Britain’s productivity gap.
But training and valuing future workforces and ensuring young people are job ready is only part of the value of education. All too frequently we forget the less tangible but equally essential cultural and political benefits of a well informed and curious populace.
We need to have much stronger political education. We are so proud of our democracy in Britain, and rightly so. But democracy should mean so much more than the right to vote. It should mean every citizen is able to challenge and change the systems which govern them. To do this we have to understand them. We need in depth education into how our democracy functions and how the institutions that run it work. How they have developed and what caused change. I want children to learn what the Magna Carta is and what Clause IV (and the debates around it) mean. What the principal tenets of Conservativism are and how the Tories have developed from Disraeli to May. I want them to develop the habit of discussing politics in a passionate but controlled way. Then it would be quite nice if they could teach their elders to do the same.
We live in the so-called “information age”. But so few of us are equipped with the skills to properly parse and understand the value of the competing information we are given. Never was this clearer than in the confusion around advice being given by experts for the EU Referedum. There were endless calls for non-partisan information but any given was immediately written off as biased for one side or the other.
As social media allows us more and more to curate the information we are given, we are frequently presented only with information that reinforces rather than challenges our world view. Pay-per-click models of advertising make it all the more attractive for online media outlets to offer us sensationalist pieces that make us feel we are right rather than give us the whole story.
In an age where all information is at our fingertips, the right’s nostalgia for learning by rote is not just bizarre but downright distracting. I don’t need to know the order of the monarchs of Britain off by heart when I can find this out in seconds if I ever need to. But I do need to know how to seek out accurate unbiased information and properly understand what I am being told. I need to know how to spot a piece that is simply there to confirm a prejudice – my own or anyone else’s. I need to learn not how to pass a test but how to challenge an idea. I need to learn when it is my own ideas that should be challenged.
As we go forward in an age where global competition remains a certainty even as we try to withdraw from it, it will be these skills that allow the future population of the UK to thrive. And it will be utilising the critical faculties we must continue to develop that will allow politics to once again thrive.