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Political Literacy evidence gathering – Education Scotland, Glasgow office 15/12/23

Political Literacy evidence gathering – Education Scotland, Glasgow office 15/12/23

Jerry Bailey

On Friday 15 December a group of primary teachers, Modern Studies teachers and Politics teachers were hosted by Education Scotland in Glasgow, for a session intended to strengthen political literacy within the Scottish school curriculum. Also present were education academics, experts from the Electoral Commission and the Scottish Parliament, and from UN House Scotland, represented by myself.

After coffee and introductions, the day began with some key questions posed by experts in the field: how can we ensure students are not just consumers of political media, but participants in political processes? How can we apply subject-related skills such as critical thinking, close reading and statistics to political issues within an educational setting? Finally, how can we ensure that young Scots are fully informed about politics, whilst also safeguarded against the negative influences of disinformation and radicalisation?

To help answer these questions, we were asked to consider trends and developments in political literacy. One was the independence referendum in 2014, which was a uniquely Scottish turning point in political consciousness. Naturally, the lowering of the voting age to 16 meant that a lot of young Scots became highly engaged. However, teachers reported very different responses in different areas – in some schools it was a hot topic, while in others teachers shied away from talking about it, chary of getting into such a ‘controversial’ issue. 

Aside from the Yes/No debate, there are other divides in Scotland which contribute to political inequality. This is evident particularly in the issue of social class - middle class pupils seem much more likely to be politically conscious than their working class peers. There are also regional disparities in education on politics – for instance, Modern Studies is not commonly offered in many regions of the country.

Another trend is the digitalisation of society and the rise of social media, which mean information is more available now than ever before. The effects of this are often more negative than positive, however. The rise of ‘post-truth culture’ and distrust in ‘MSM’ (mainstream media) are notable, with influencers and gurus doing an effective job of promoting potentially harmful narratives. This has led to a rise in the prevalence of conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, with algorithms often funnelling young people into echo chambers, where group identities are reinforced and exploited. 

COVID accelerated this trend, and AI is likely to accelerate it further going forward. We discussed how do we combat these threats? Debunking and fact-checking are often less effective than one might think. Why? Because human beings, particularly young people who have not yet completed their education, tend to value belonging and ‘social proof’ from their ‘in-group’ above external influences. This is part of the reason why many teenagers are more interested in what influencers have to say than what they’re told by traditional authority figures.

In extreme cases, teachers may even be seen as complicit in unsettling conspiracy theories – the ‘Plandemic’, the ‘Matrix’ or the ‘Great Reset’. Many of the teachers present expressed concerns about the impact of this ‘culture war’ in the classroom and its impact on young Scots. Others, interestingly, noted that these were mainly the preserve of a minority of pupils; they observed an even larger problem is disengagement from everything outside a narrow bubble of dopamine-producing digital entertainment, leading to lack of focus on studies and gaps in general knowledge. 

All this said, schools are crucially important in combatting these developments, as they have the ability to engage in ‘prebunking’ – giving pupils the language they need to analyse and identify pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and manipulation before they are exposed to it.

This speaks perhaps to an even larger trend, that of declining trust in authority, made visible in the aggression towards politicians online and in person. This has stark parallels with the worrying trend of increasing aggression towards educators, especially women. This distrust, it was suggested, is especially prevalent in marginalised communities – e.g. ‘white’ working class people and also minority ethnic Scots. Some such communities have reservations about contact with authorities, and even those who don’t often have lower voter turnout in elections. A common misconception is that migrants without a British passport can’t vote in Scotland: In fact, as of 2021, they can now vote in all devolved elections in Scotland (and Wales) provided they have leave to remain. A new development of relevance to education are the new requirements for voter ID – the vast majority of young people have ID in form of their Young Scot card, though not yet all.

The day ended with us separating into small groups for brainstorming sessions to strengthen political literacy not just in social studies subjects, but across the curriculum. Teachers highlighted issues with resourcing and a lack of time to teach everything they wanted.

A key takeaway for me was the importance of values such as compassion, civility, openness and curiosity, which are arguably not only crucial in their own right for active citizenship, but also for underpinning attempts to develop knowledge and skills. I made sure to bring global citizenship into the conversation, highlighting the importance of knowing about how Scottish/British citizenship and governance should be seen as part of wider European and international politics, whether expressed through the EU and UN or other forums. I’m grateful to Lynne Robertson for facilitating the meeting, and for giving attendees an introduction to UN House Scotland’s popular Model UN programme for schools, which is one of the many ways UN Association members contribute to political literacy among young people.

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