A friend who is a secondary teacher had an MP in to talk to students recently. It wasn’t the local Conservative MP for her area – she’d tried them and they were too busy with the current situation at Westminster – so she’d approached an MP from a neighbouring constituency who was happy to oblige. The neighbouring MP happened to be from Labour, but that didn’t matter, reasoned my friend. They were still able to explain the way the parliamentary process works.
How wrong she was.
The visit was covered in the local paper, and a week later, the school received a complaint from a member of the public. How dare they, they began, how dare they allow this politician to talk to students? They could be corrupted by their politics! They are trying to sway the younger generation to their point of view!
It all turned out to be a storm in a teacup, of course. It was explained that the local MP had also been invited but had declined. It was elaborated that he would be visiting later in the year. It was also made clear that the MP in question wasn’t campaigning. Was the complaining member of public appeased? Probably not, but at least my friend felt she had done her best.
All this got me thinking about politics and the role it plays in our schools. I am one of those people who get frustrated when friends tell me they don’t ‘do’ politics. In my opinion, you can’t be a functioning member of society without having an opinion on politics. It affects every aspect of our lives: how much tax we pay; our public transport; our libraries; our healthcare; our pensions; the way our children are educated. Politics is inextricably linked to education. Students have the right to know about the system which is shaping their lives.
Of course, most schools teach some degree of political awareness. In schools I’ve worked in, we’ve even had mini election campaigns, mirroring the major political parties. But I think there should be more than that. I think students should be allowed to know the political leanings of their teachers, they should be encouraged to ask about political decisions and debate political issues with their teachers and peers. Because if they’re not, if we shelter them from this, then they can grow up with a view like our complaining member of the public – that anyone with an opposing view to their own is to be feared.
In today’s world, with controversy raging in the highest political strata, debate seems to have become strangled. Issues become hugely divisive very quickly, and debate reduces into petty insults. It’s vital that we teach our children to be better than this: to rise above the mud-slinging that has come from all the parties, and to engage in reasoned, reasonable debate. And the only way they can do that is if they practise it. If they become used to hearing opposing views from people in authority, and learn how to challenge them thoughtfully. If they understand that everyone has a political viewpoint, and that is OK. It’s OK for people to differ. We should encourage MPs to come into our schools, we should encourage students to watch Question Time and read the papers. We need future generations to view politics, not as something separate and distant from them, but as something which holds the fabric of their lives together.
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