Wales’s schools urgently need political participation lessons

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.

Dr Dan Evans uses WISERD research to examine young people’s apathy with the Welsh political process

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Click to read the original article.

After 20 years of devolved politics, one would assume that Wales’s government and parliament would have solidified its place in the country, and the people of Wales would be well aware of what they do. Yet surveys and research have shown time and time again that awareness of what authority these bodies have is still shockingly low.

The recently launched Missing Voices report from Electoral Reform Society Cymru, for example, identified that many Welsh voters feel frustrated with the political system. This is compounded by disengagement partly rooted in confusion and a basic lack of knowledge about the political system.

This information deficit is absolutely crippling to Welsh democracy. You can’t have a functioning democracy without an informed, educated population after all. If no-one understands who is responsible for what then there can be no scrutiny, no legitimacy.

Attempts to remedy Wales’ information deficit have so far focused on providing more Welsh media. This is understandable – it is logical to assume that the lack of awareness is caused by not enough news coverage of Welsh politics. Yet political awareness is not just the media’s responsibility. The public sphere is an array of institutions, including the public education system.

Since devolution, much has been made about the role that education can play in giving a sense of Welsh citizenship and civic identity. The ill-fated “Cwricwlwm Cymreig” was an attempt to embed Welsh culture in the school curriculum. Now, the newer Welsh baccalaureate includes sections on global education and citizenship, although interestingly the political literacy element that looked at the Welsh political system has been cut from the newest iteration. On top of this, the Welsh government and third sector bodies visit schools to teach them about Welsh politics. But our research has found that far more should be done, particularly now in light of a new recommendation to lower Wales’s voting age to 16-years-old.

What students think

Over the last five years, we have been researching the role education can play in Welsh politics. We’ve gone straight to the source, asking Welsh pupils about their interest in politics, as well as the role that school plays in their understanding of current affairs.

In 2016, we asked over 700 students from across Wales how interested they were in different scales of politics. As you can see below, not many reported much interest, although, importantly, students were far less interested in local or Welsh politics than they were in UK and world politics.

But the students are not apolitical. They care deeply about issues like Brexit, racism, and their communities. Disengagement from “formal” politics does not equal apathy, however this lack of interest specifically in Welsh politics is definitely concerning.

This year, we asked more than 1,100 students to identify whether the Welsh or British governments are in charge of different areas of Welsh politics. These results were a mixed bag. The older group did a little better overall, but both age groups scored slightly higher than the national average did in a 2014 poll on policing and education conducted by ICM/the BBC.

We then asked this cohort to match the political leader to their job. Unsurprisingly, the older group displayed a higher level of awareness, but both year groups were more aware of the UK leaders than Welsh ones. There was some confusion when it came to the Welsh leaders too, with a significant amount getting Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and first minister Carwyn Jones’ roles mixed up. This disparity illustrates the importance afforded to the different scales of politics: British politics is clearly more visible than Welsh in Wales.

These were not just trivia tests, however. We wanted to know what the students thought about the role of school in inculcating political awareness and knowledge. In 2013 we asked 410 12 to 13-year-olds and 428 14 to 15-year-olds whether they agreed with the statement “school helps increase my interest in the politics of Wales”. The majority disagreed, claiming that school does not help increase their interest in the politics of Wales.

In 2015 we asked pupils to choose the two main sources they relied upon for their information on current affairs. The following graph displays the aggregate data of the first and second choices combined.

Unsurprisingly, most relied on Facebook, family and friends, and newspapers and websites for current affairs news. But what is most interesting here is that school lessons emerge as the least important source of information. Despite the numerous initiatives on citizenship and political education within the Welsh education system, school seems to be seen as an apolitical arena, at least in terms of “formal” political literacy.

Given the low levels of awareness in Wales, basic political literacy should be a core pillar of Welsh citizenship education. However, citizenship or political education is not just about political literacy, but should be about cultivating tolerance, empathy and critical thinking at a time when the forces of reaction are on the rise, including within Wales.