CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: The Next Generation (Report No. 6)

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Politics: the next generation

The long game

Barbara Lomas

What difference would my idea make? This cry from the open-comment section of the questionnaire encapsulates the powerlessness and alienation that so many young people feel in Northern Ireland today.

Of the 1,300 14-24 year-olds who returned their questionnaires, 465 took time to fill in all or some of this section, asking for their thoughts on the past and the future of Northern Ireland. Well over a third (168) had virtually the same message, in virtually the same language, as in these examples:

The past is gone. It is over. People in Northern Ireland dwell too much on the past.

Sadly in Northern Ireland too many people talk ahout the past and kill for the memory of the dead.

The past is the past. I don't want it to happen again.

The past should not he allowed to dominate the present in politics.

There were different messages about the past. Many, however, with the impatience of youth, wanted to move on quickly:

The past is the past. Today is the present and tomorrow is the future.

Irrelevant. We need to look at the future. There is no point in dwelling on the past. We must look to the future.

Its history. Time to move on.

Then there were those who felt we had much to learn from the past:
Leave it behind. Learn from it hut don't let it restrict progress towards a more understanding and tolerant society.

I hope we can learn from it; never forget it, because in forgetting, the problems could rise up again.

Learn from it, then forget it.

Forget about the past. Bury it. In order to make progress we must hide the hurt, anger and bitterness and take each day as it comes.

Young people were quite harsh in their judgments on politicians:

Politicians want to catch themselves on to the realism of the political situation in Northern Ireland and start talking.

I wish that politicians would wise up and catch themselves on.

I think it's a shame that politicians don't listen to anyone but themselves.

The politicians dwell too much on the past and just keep firing up things that have happened. They need to put their differences aside; what's done is done and you can't change it but they can stop it from happening again.

There were many clear ideas as to what politicians should do:
I'd like to see politicians stepping outside constitutional politics and addressing more important social and economic matters that affect young people.

I think politicians should be unemployed for six months as part of their training.

There's the obvious issue of the talks but I think that'll take a long time to sort out. So, who will look after the other problems like unemployment and drugs.

Why don't the politicians stop fighting over silly things and sort out the real problems like unemployment and drugs and things? I would like a job when I leave school; not many of my friends have a job.

Young people did have some ideas for their political future:
Get young people to register their vote and then politicians might listen to them.

Young people must have a voice. Very few teenagers associate themselves with the antiquated political factions that currently exist. A political party to act as a conduit for the perspective of youth in Northern Ireland must be established.

Youth to have more say in political decisions; a youth parliament might be set up as our generation have no political say. It would also be educational and beneficial for the future; after all we are the future of this country.

There were also disturbing signs of political apathy, alienation and frustration:
Do politicians forget they were young once? Do they not remember being frustrated because they couldn't have a say about the future?

Anyone with any sense can see that the political system in this country is dull, boring and no one is given a fair choice; human life is reduced to a number on a page.

Young people don't really know too much about the political system in Northern Ireland because there is nothing in it for us or to interest us.

It sucks. Too many people with old views run this place. They don't listen to the youth, they think we're thick and they don't need to bother with us.

The 1,300 replies to the set questions illustrate well this sense of alienation, as Tony Gallagher's chapter indicated, yet at the same time they demonstrate a desire to participate more, without having access to the channels to do so.

Young people were asked to rank on a five point scale - from 'strongly disagree' to 'strongly agree' - some statements, one of which was concerned with the opportunity to learn about politics in schools. Only 8 per cent disagreed or disagreed strongly, while 79 per cent agreed or agreed strongly. Irrespective of age, gender, religion, school type attended, or national identity, there was overwhelming support for some form of teaching about politics and political issues.

This was also illustrated by comments in the focus groups. In two groups in particular, the pattern was similar. The initial reaction to a question on political education in schools was mostly negative, but by the time the discussions were in full flow, the need for some sort of political education was apparent and the participants began to formulate ideas.

One group, mixed by religion and gender and aged 17-19, thought:

Young people don't have an interest in the political system or political structure they're interested in things like the environment, youth unemployment etc.

It'll not work if a teacher just walks into a class and says 'right we're gonna talk about politics'. You have to bring it in more slowly, and make it count like things that matter, jobs and drugs and things.

It should be compulsory like religion. The idea behind religion is to teach faith and morality. No one teaches about social inclusion (That's being able to take part in your community. Equally. To participate.)

Another, single religious identity group of 14-16 year-olds of both genders thought:
You should learn what you're voting for; what parties are gonna do and what they stand for. Like at the moment there's all them posters on lampposts and its like saying 'who's the nicest, vote for me'

You'd need to be subjected to it from an early age, 'cos like you get to 16 and you don't know anything, so when it comes on TV you automatically turn over.

You know what I think? You know the country we're living in an all, and all the fighting and stuff, the subject of politics should be made compulsory in schools.

Sure RE'S compulsory even if you're not interested and its more important to learn about politics.

This is not a message that is restricted to Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. In a report published by Demos[1] a similar sense of frustration was found. Over one third of the 18-24 year-olds surveyed took pride in being outside the system, but they were concerned about many issues: the environment, AIDS, jobs and animal welfare/rights.

In a study conducted by the Speakers' Commission on Citizenship,[2] Richardson commented:

It is unusual to find wide consensus on any issue. In this study there was one issue which united virtually everyone across the political spectrum. From those who had left school with few qualifications to those in university or beyond, there was a strong call for more issues surrounding citizenship in schools.
The British Youth Council Report Never Had It So Good[3] focused on 16-25 year olds in a compilation of opinion polls and interviews. The report clearly shows young people under pressure from society and alienated by a political system that seems stacked against them. The report concluded: "Young people are not looking for sympathy or special treatment, just equal treatment. We must ensure that they are given an equal chance to participate fully in the society they will one day lead."

These patterns of disenchantment aren't peculiar to Britain either, but can be found in most industrialised countries. In 1988, the then French president, François Mitterand, responding to diminishing political participation by young people, commissioned a nationwide survey of youth attitudes. In Australia, an official report on young people's attitudes to voting concluded that the single most important reason why they failed to register was because they did not see any direct link between government, government institutions and their own lives. There has been concern in the us about youth apathy since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972; similar concerns have expressed in Canada and Sweden.

Nor does this disenchantment appear to be a temporary generational problem, which will rectify itself with time. Figures in most European countries show a consistent drop in youth voting. Thus in America there has been a 15 per cent drop amongst the under-25s since 1972. In Britain, the most marked manifestation of disenchantment has been in the membership of political parties. Not only have the figures dropped dramatically overall since the 50s, but the parties themselves have been ageing. The average age of the Conservative party member is 61, and the median 65; only 5 per cent are under 35. In the Labour party, although the average age is 48, three times as many members are over 66 than are under 25.

Other countries have reacted positively to these findings about youth apathy and alienation. In the US the traditional Civics was meant to translate the 'melting pot' theory e pluribus unum into reality, but it has come under attack from multi-culturalists, and new directions for all students are being explored in programmes such as CIVITAS and America 2000. In Australia, the official report on young people's attitudes was swiftly followed by a national curriculum framework for Studies of Society and the Environment.

In France, the traditional instruction civique et morale gave way to a new syllabus which supported education for democracy, since further revised. After a national survey in 1992, the Swedish national curriculum now reads: "The school has the responsibility for communicating values, knowledge and skills and for preparing pupils for living and working in society." This is largely done through Social and Civic Studies. In Canada, most of the school boards have taken up the new Political Education Project; it provides a vehicle through which to meet the statutory requirements set for schools in 1988 by the Canadian Multicultural Act.

Across eastern Europe and in Russia, moves are afoot to set up civic education that looks at human rights, freedoms, obligations and responsibilities to society. Emphasis is placed on creating legal awareness, both at the personal level and for society as a whole.

Everywhere progress is being made - everywhere it seems, except the UK. This is not for lack of lobbying by groups such as the Citizenship Foundation (an independent educational charity), the work of the Politics Association, or the output of academic writers and a host of official reports: Spens (1938), Norwood (1943), the Education Act (1944) and the 11-16 curriculum review (Department of Education and Science, 1977). All referred to the need to prepare pupils for the responsibilities of citizenship, but none explained how this was to be done, beyond a passing reference to history and geography.

Political education had not been an issue in Britain because the system quietly socialised the classes into their respective roles. The imperative of mass education associated with the growth of parliamentary democracy in the late 19th century saw the hierarchical social structure translated into three kinds of school. The ruling class would continue to have the 'liberal education' that so ideally fitted it for governance, the middle classes were to be educated in loyal service and commercially useful subjects and the masses would be taught the skills required of an obedient workforce. The traditional role of the state in providing moral or political education within this system was largely ignored in favour of church-based activities.

Political education made its first tentative steps into the English and Welsh curriculum in 1988 when the Education Reform Act set up the (now defunct) National Curriculum Council to look at cross-curricular themes, one of which was to be citizenship. The Speaker's Commission on Citizenship, which reported in 1990, recommended to the NCC that the study and experience of citizenship should be a part of every young person's education, from the earliest years to further and higher education. The NCC's 'Guidance no 8' was the result, its detailed 'key stage' progression plan warmly welcomed by those working in the field.

The cross-curricular theme of citizenship has, however, manifestly failed to deliver on the expectations expressed in official documents. Many reasons have been cited, but the real failure lies at the door of government, which has not built upon it. For some commentators this is unsurprising, because of the track record of political education in Britain. Caught in the vortex of post-imperial, multi-cultural changes, foisted on a sometimes unwilling host, sections of the population, particularly Conservatives, find the concept of the citizen - not subject - an uncomfortable one. This has been reflected in ambivalence towards political education in schools: teaching about duties and responsibilities is acceptable, teaching about rights and controversial issues is not.

In the Republic of Ireland, the transformation of the traditional Civics to a new Civic, Social and Political Education (CSPE) course was made much easier by the fact that all three main political parties had a hand in its preparation, during different spells of coalition government. The pilot project was launched in 1993 and the new subject has been progressively introduced to schools over the past two years. The idea is that it should be taught over the three-year junior cycle and examined at the Junior Certificate. Assessment has been felt essential on the grounds that the subject would not otherwise have status, teachers would be reluctant to teach it, and students and their parents would not value it. In its guidelines to the schools (1996), the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment says:

The new course in CSPE is designed to help students in accordance with their abilities and aptitudes to achieve an understanding and appreciation of the central concepts of citizenship. It aims to prepare students for active, participatory citizenship.
The guidelines set out four units of study, to be completed in about 70 hours teaching over three years:
  1. The individual and citizenship
  2. The community
  3. The state: Ireland
  4. Ireland and the world.

So where does Northern Ireland stand in relation to all these movements in political education? The region has an education system in many ways similar to that in - except, of course, for comprehensive schooling. A vociferous, cross-sectarian, middle-class lobby has effectively sustained schooling segregated by both class and religion.

A state system exists, predominantly Protestant, alongside a maintained system which is totally Catholic. Official recognition of integrated schools only came in 1989, with the creation of 'grant maintained integrated' status. The vast majority of the population have grown up through the segregated system.

Educational policies in Northern Ireland since the days of Stormont have followed the 'step-by-step' principle, mirroring most British legislation a year or so after it became law. Thus Northern Ireland followed the British tradition of socialisation through the hierarchical school structure - overlaying the socialising effect of segregation - and civics or political education never took root.

With the advent of the 'troubles', however, and research showing a clear lack of understanding and contact between children in the different school systems, debate began about the proper role of education in society: could it alleviate, or at least not exacerbate, the problems of Northern Ireland? The debate tended to follow one of two hypotheses: segregation is simply a matter of curriculum and cultural differences, which can be tackled by curriculum change; or segregation, of itself, enforces social differences, ignorance and hostility.

Various strategies have been tried to tackle this, ranging from integrated schooling to the Cross Community Contact Scheme (set up by the Department of Education in 1987). Curricular initiatives have been exemplified by 'education for mutual understanding' and 'cultural heritage'. The Educational Reform Order 1989 set out the common curriculum and cross-curricular themes for schools. EMU and CH are two of the six themes, which represent important strands of learning within the Northern Ireland curriculum. They are compulsory components of the curriculum of all grant-aided schools. Since 1992 the objectives of the two themes have been conjoined, reflecting the view that they are entirely complementary They are meant to be taught mainly through the constituent subjects of the curriculum.

This has major implications for political education in Northern Ireland. The concept of education for citizenship in the more 'normal' national context-as we have seen in the republic, France, Sweden, Canada and the nation-building eastern European democracies-is clearly not appropriate to a region where the existence and nature of the state itself are contested. A more general human rights education, along the lines of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, is perhaps more appropriate. According to this convention, the education of the child should have the following goals:

  • development of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms;
  • development of respect for child's own parents, for his/her cultural identity, languages and values and for those different from his/her own; and
  • preparation of children for a responsible life in a free society, in a spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes and friendship amongst peoples.

The Department of Education last year defined EMU and CH as follows:

EMU is to help pupils to develop positive and mutually respectful relationships and to appreciate human difference of all kinds, including culture, disability, gender, ethnicity, politics and religion, in a spirit of acceptance and respect. It is also about preparing students to deal constructively with conflict. CH involves helping pupils to develop an understanding of their own way of life and that of others by providing opportunities to consider the many influences on culture and to appreciate the shared and distinctive cultural traditions within Northern Ireland and other societies while encouraging a sense of belonging to one's own cultural background. It also involves helping pupils to respect and value other cultures and to reflect on how aspects of their own culture may be perceived differently by others.
In the progression from key stage 1 to key stage 4 (primary 1 to GCSE), children should cover everything from finding a vocabulary for feelings, understanding conflict (understanding its causes, how to avoid, lessen or resolve it), looking at divisions within Northern Ireland, to becoming familiar with some of the principles of democracy and how one can participate in, and influence, the political process.

As cross-curricular themes they are not directly examinable but are to be found in subjects such as history, geography, English and religion. For example, in history at key stage 2 (upper primary) one of the historical areas to be examined should be in the region. At key stage 3 (lower end of post-primary school) there is specific study of the Normans in Ireland, Ireland 1600-1700, and Union to Partition. By key stage 4, students may choose to study Northern Ireland 1939-65 or 1960-90. These history syllabuses are a world away from the parade of British monarchs traditionally taught in state schools or the parallel nationalistic history of the maintained sector.

Since September 1996 a new modular GCSE - Social and Environmental Studies - has been available for study. Amongst the modules on offer (from which a student has to study four) are cultural heritage, information and the media, and law and society. In the revised modular GCSE syllabus for Personal and Social Education, students can study rights and responsibilities in the community. All modules offer the student the chance to make a personal study of an area of work that has been of interest.

There is also an 'A' level examination called Government and Politics. This follows an academic study of political ideas, behaviour and institutions in Britain, Northern Ireland and either the Republic of Ireland or the USA. Although it is a large and growing subject by 'A' level standards, it is still only available to the minority who stay on in schools after 16+ - even then, not all schools offer it as a subject choice.

It is not only in schools that we find the department advancing[4] political education in the last decade. Youth workers were working in this area long before it became a statutory obligation to include it in the youth programme. Many youth groups are involved in small-group discussion or some of the political education projects that have sprung up over the past few years. Training for youth leaders tries to take all these aspects on board.

One of our focus group discussions generated this testimony:

You should start at community level. See youth and community workers, they're brilliant. They cover issues such as cultural identity, policing, unemployment and drugs and stuff.

Talking in small groups is best but in lots of youth clubs there's too many kids and not enough youth workers to get into small discussion groups. They're the best.

It has been recognised in Britain that youth work can have a role to play in political education. In 1978 the Department of Education and Science gave substantial grants to short-term political education projects sponsored by the National Association of Youth Clubs and the British Youth Council. The DES statement on political education in youth work read:
What is required is experience of such a kind that the young people learn to claim their rights to influence the society in which they live, and to have a say in how it is run. It is active participation in some form of political activity which really counts.
A warning note, though, is sounded from some research carried out for the survey Teenage Religion and Values.[5] Youth clubs are run mostly by volunteer workers, who have little formal training or preparation for dealing with moral or spiritual (political) controversies. Where there are full-time workers, or a good number of volunteers, it is possible to do participative or experiential work, but most youth clubs do not have that luxury. Youth work is marginalised; it usually represents a very small, single-figure percentage of any local education authority budget.

It isn't possible, or desirable, to translate the classroom into youth work or youth work into the classroom - not the least because of the very different power structures involved, a point which is taken up in the next chapter. Nonetheless, especially in political education, they should work in a complementary fashion. Each has strengths which the other lacks in securing the attention of young people. An interesting test of this will be Speak Your Piece, an EU-funded project, run from the University of Ulster at Coleraine, linked to the Channel 4 schools series.

There is an impressive array of public and independently sponsored initiatives which deal with political issues in formal and informal education. Other projects in the informal sector include, for example, Off the Walls, aimed at 14-17 year-olds, which explored the impact of identity, culture, religion and politics on the lives of young people in Northern Ireland.

The project was founded on the principle that educators have a positive contribution to make in helping young people engage with controversial social, cultural, religious and political issues, by:

  • enabling dialogue which is forthright and inclusive;
  • providing alternatives to violence and avoidance as a means of resolving conflict; and
  • facilitating participatory decision-making which encourages the democratic process.

The project, still running, will disseminate its work and evaluate the effectiveness of various strategies for handling controversial issues.

Church-based youth work is carried out through Youth Link, established by the four main churches to co-ordinate youth work in the late 80s. Its strategy is to target youth leaders, enabling them to acquire the skills of cross-community work and peer education. The methods include group work, role play, simulation games, videos and so on. It offers up to 27 modules for training courses, from which youth groups can pick a menu. These address the central issues of religion, politics, history, cultural traditions and the dynamics of cross-community encounter.

Youth Link has just begun a three year KAIROS project, 'Empowering Young People to Shape the Future', and is hoping to target 200 youth workers each year. The project consists of six sessions, covering two topics equally: 'understanding the past' (1921-96) and 'shaping the future'.

Much good work in political education is done by the Council for Education in World Citizenship, which organises conferences amongst sixth years on international and local political issues, and the famous MUNGAS (Model United Nations General Assemblies). The feedback from these conferences is always positive, not least because they encourage pupils to look beyond the parochial politics of Northern Ireland.

The Ulster People's College also runs political education programmes, but at community level, and not specifically aimed at youth. It offers a 'menu' of modules for groups to choose from where possible. It has also produced political training programmes for political parties, tailoring them to suit each party's requests.

How effective are these initiatives likely to be? What did the young people in the focus groups want from political education? There seemed to be two clear messages. They wanted information to empower them to participate more effectively in the community, to be 'socially included'; this involves learning certain skills, as well as acquiring facts. They also wanted to know more about the other community and other societies, so that they wouldn't stay stuck in the same traditions and mould as their parents. What research we have suggests the most effective way to acquire understanding is gradually, sustained over time and in a variety of ways.

The cross-curricular themes of EMU and CH, if properly implemented, would more than adequately meet most of the requirements of young people and of human rights educators in general. But recent research into EMU suggests that while the statutory requirements are met in many schools, it is to the letter of the law and not its spirit. Many dedicated and enthusiastic teachers and senior managers promote the EMU/CH ethos, but they are very much in the minority. The cross-curricular aspects of EMU and CH seem in danger of being sidelined. Unless more schools, and particularly their senior managers, take up the challenge in a much more wholehearted way, EMU/ CH will not succeed in its aims, except for the smallest minority. Government could intervene to make more aspects mandatory, or to rework the core curriculum at various key stages to allow cross curricular aspects of EMU/CH to be examined in the constituent subjects.

The experience of the republic with the low-status Civics is that external assessment towards some certificate of importance is the only guaranteed way to give the subject, and its teachers, the status deserved. There is much diffidence in Northern Ireland about following that path for EMU/CH in key stages 2 and 3. But the GCSE modules provide ample opportunity for students to acquire more of the factual information they want - if they ever get the chance to study them.

One of the major drawbacks to developing a subject like Social and Environmental Studies at GCSE is that it comes into the already overcrowded marketplace of key stage 4. Grammar schools will find it difficult to find a timetable slot, against the existing history and geography options at this level; these established academic subjects will only reluctantly give way. Even at secondary school, where there might be less pressure from the academic disciplines of history and geography, there will still be a possible clash with Personal and Social Education at GCSE level. The take-up of the latter, covering as it does most of the social, cultural, legal and political skills necessary for young people in our society, may in fact therefore be quite small, and not in the power of the young person to choose in the first place. It seems a great pity that space is not found for it on the timetable for every pupil in the middle school. That would require government intervention.

A further difficulty is the culture of avoidance in Northern Ireland. The polite way to avert conflict has been simply to avoid controversial issues, or conversations or situations which might prove controversial. Most adults have never been required, or even tried, to have a rational and controlled debate over issues about which they feel strongly with someone who feels quite strongly in the other direction. Yet this is what they expect teachers to do with their children and their children to practise on other children.

Young people want the chance to air their views, they handle quite heated debates fairly well, and above all they enjoy the opportunities to debate and discuss with other young people. This was the overwhelming message from the young people who participated in the schools assemblies, as part of the Opsahl commission, in 1992. These assemblies were groundbreakers in this approach to political education, and Speak Your Piece has some parallels in the open and frank dialogue it wants to promote.

The problem of raising controversial issues lies not with young people but with adults, and in many cases with teachers or youth workers and the senior management of both. Lack of training in dealing with controversy, lack of confidence in one's own ability to be able to face up to the issues and the constant worry, particularly in schools, about what the parents will say produce a terribly stunted atmosphere for most young people. Instead of being able to discuss issues in class, all too often the teacher sidelines the debate when it gets in any way controversial.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that many history departments opt for Northern Ireland 1939-1965 as their choice for key stage 4 history, because it is the less contentious of the two choices. There is also anecdotal evidence, backed up by inspectorate observations about the teaching of 'union to partition' in key stage 3 ,that in many schools and classes understanding is sacrificed to a welter of factual information; in this way the subject has academic status, and can't be seen as contentious.

Even at 'A' level, where the subject is recognised as an academic study, there are teachers who will not offer the Northern Ireland section of paper 1 because it entails a study of the 'isms' of Northern Ireland's political parties - loyalism, republicanism, nationalism and unionism - and a detailed study of alternatives to direct rule, which requires looking at all the options and considering the arguments for and against. I know of two colleagues in different schools who will not offer this topic, because it is 'unnecessarily contentious.

The solution to this problem is not simple. In-service training for EMU has been consistently offered and the same faithful, converted souls turn up each time. There needs to be a statutory requirement for staff to attend certain courses or many will not go. A start could be made in the pre-teaching courses and in statutory youth work training, where a compulsory module on handling controversial issues/political awareness or similar could be introduced. Both of these require government intervention, which has been sadly absent in this sphere. More government support could be given to youth work, especially in its efforts to deal with political education.

There are also movements which could be made by the 'workers on the ground' in political education. There are a number of academics working in separate but related areas of research, there are practitioners in many non-governmental organisations, there are teachers and youth workers and there are those responsible for curriculum development and teacher training. And if any advances are to be made to provide better access to political education for young people, it must start at home and not wait for the magic wand of government initiatives! funding/recognition, much needed as they might be.

A much more active partnership is needed amongst all the players in this field. Education, particularly political education, is the long game, and, if it is to be played properly, it makes much more sense to be part of a team.

1. Helen Wilkinson, Freedom's Children, Demos, London, 1995
2. Encouraging Citizenship: Report of the Speaker's Commission on Citizenship, HMSO, London, 1990
3. Never Had It So Good?, British Youth Council, London, 1996
4. See Policy for Youth Service, Department of Education Northern Ireland, Belfast, 1987.
5. Francis and Kay, Teenage Religion and Values, Gracewing, 1995

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