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Political Literacy - 'Now or Never'

By Jerome Bailey

One of the signs of a progressive and healthy society is an educated citizenry who know their rights and their responsibilities. From voting in elections, to engaging in productive debates on social media, to agitating for change at the grassroots level, well-informed and mutually respectful political engagement are crucial to our governments making good decisions which lead to happier, healthier and fuller lives for all. The knowledge and skills needed for this come, first and foremost, from our schooling. 

The second session of Education Scotland's political literacy consultation series took place in Glasgow on 1st March 2024. Teachers, academics and other stakeholders including UN House Scotland were invited to give their views on how we can make Scotland's youth more politically engaged. In the wake of COVID and increasing youth anxiety about the future, that is no easy task. Teachers have a heavy workload as it is, and their job hasn't been getting any easier with economic and social issues putting increasing pressure on them. So is now the time to give them yet another thing to think about? The answer may well be - now, or never.

With recent developments in AI, the volume of disinformation and dangerous material online are at record highs, which makes now the best time to try to combat these trends by educating students about the dangers they pose. The rates of conspiracy theory adherence and sexism in schools have seen a worrying rise in Scotland lately, and teachers must be helped to deal with the underlying problems which contribute to their existence. One in particular of these is that, in contrast to the relatively more politically engaged generation who preceded them, the current crops of pupils are more likely to get their political news from unreliable - and sometimes actively malevolent - Snapchat and Instagram influencers than the legacy print/TV media, or even news websites. 

So Scotland, like every country in the world, is faced with a mammoth task - how to deal with these mounting problems with ever-shrinking resources? One option would be to introduce a 'citizenship' class, something found in many other countries including our neighbours in England and Northern Ireland. But finding space in the timetable for a new subject might be a tall order. Another possible answer is a cross-curricular approach which, whilst recognising the important role of Social Studies subjects (Modern Studies, Politics etc) in high schools, also recognises that political literacy requires a holistic, long-term approach. Children ought to start learning in primary school that strong values and respect for others must go beyond the classroom. They should then move on to the building blocs of 'information literacy' in English and Maths. History, modern languages, science all the way to Religious Education also have their own vital roles to play in producing globally aware critical thinkers.

Of course, most of these things are already happening in some way on some level. In our next meeting, we will discuss issues such as: how do we ensure best practices in our highest-performing schools are also present elsewhere, including in more marginalised and disadvantaged schools? And, how can we make sure that we adapt that to the needs of teachers and learners in each context. For example, in Scotland's many working class communities that have suffered economic shocks, social problems and substance abuse epidemics, political literacy is not a luxury - it's a necessity. It can give locals the information they need to understand and influence the political decisions which affect them more than anyone else, and also the power to combat the discourses in media and social media which misunderstand, criticise and at times demonise them. And these problems are not restricted to Scotland, of course. The world can at times seem like a battle between powerful factions engaged in zero-sum conflicts which smother smaller actors' concerns. The hope underlying the UN is that most of our biggest problems are not zero-sum battles where only one side can win - they are shared issues where we can work together to tackle our common problems. That starts by listening and learning, and turning our minds to tackling the threats that risk undermining a century of Post-War progress in building democratic values. It's now, or never.

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