Policy Implications Chapters 6 and 7 discussed the ways in which participants often felt that politics was both inaccessible to them, and that they lacked the political awareness to make informed political choices. These qualitative findings are supported by survey evidence detailing the sketchy nature of young people’s political knowledge, and the infrequency of their involvement in politics as consumers of political information (Chapter 4). In many ways these are two sides of the same coin. Young people feel politically uninformed because politics as presented via the news media is perceived to be inaccessible to them. Conversely, politics often remains unintelligible to many young people because they lack the skills and knowledge necessary to process political information. The relative absence of political awareness amongst young people thus raises fundamental questions about the ways in which young people acquire their political norms, values and orientations to political action. The study of political socialisation generally distinguishes between formal modes of political learning (for example through citizenship classes), and informal types of learning via a range of agencies, but principally through the family and media (e.g., Greenstein, 1965; Easton and Dennis, 1969; Hess and Torney, 1968). One obvious strategy for improving young people’s awareness of politics, and of the ways in which politics touches their lives, is through programmes of formal political education. This approach has gained increasing prominence amongst policy makers and educationalists in recent years and these initiatives are examined further here. In comparison, effecting change in those informal channels of influence upon young people’s political learning, principally the news media, are likely to prove less tractable. This chapter therefore also discusses the implications of changes in the style and ‘packaging’ of politics for young people’s access to political information, and by extension for their opportunities for exercising real political influence. However, widening young people’s participation in the political process is about more than simply developing the requisite skills and competencies needed for effective participation in the political arena. Of equal importance to initiatives seeking to improve young people’s political awareness are innovations that open up new opportunities for young people’s political involvement, and constitutional reforms that improve the responsiveness of the wider political system to public pressure. Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in the modernisation of the British electoral system with the goal of increasing electoral registration and turnout. This chapter examines these proposals and evaluates their prospects in raising turnout amongst young voters. At a predominantly local level, institutional
innovations in forms of public representation potentially offer new avenues for young people’s involvement in the policy process and these are also discussed here. The constitutional reforms originally proposed by New Labour arguably represented the most ambitious programme of institutional modernisation for over half a century. This chapter therefore assesses their performance so far and evaluates their implications for young people’s political engagement, before going on to summarise the overall conclusions emerging from the research described here and their implications for future policy and practice. Improving Access to Political Information The Politics of Citizenship Education Efforts to cultivate political understanding and the skills necessary for effective political action have until relatively recently not been a prominent feature of the British education system. Where political education was explicitly encouraged this has usually taken the form of ‘civics’, which, as one critic argued, was ‘utopian, quietist, simplistic, indoctrinating and class biased, hardly meriting the term “education”’ (Entwistle, 1973: 7, quoted in Davies, 1999). Whilst this neglect has several sources, a lack of tradition and professional commitment to political education amongst teachers, a perception of politics as an exclusively adult domain, and a fear of indoctrination, have been key factors in frustrating efforts to provide more adequate political education in British schools (Heater, 1977). Partly as a consequence of the lowering of the voting age in the UK to 18 in 1970, the 1970s witnessed a resurgence of interest in political education. The Programme for Political Education (Crick and Porter, 1978) was the most obvious manifestation of this interest, reflecting growing academic interest in young people’s political learning and an accumulation of empirical evidence revealing the sketchy nature of young people’s political understanding. The emphasis here was upon the development of a critical awareness, or ‘political literacy’, which would potentially facilitate young people’s active political engagement. As such, this programme represented a considerable advance upon traditional civics with its largely sterile emphasis upon factual knowledge, which neither stimulated interest in ‘real’ politics, nor equipped young people to engage actively in political life. Although the political literacy movement made considerable headway amongst educationalists, the ideologically charged atmosphere of the 1980s frustrated attempts at implementation. It was not until 1990, and the Speaker’s Commission on Citizenship (1990), that ‘active citizenship’ began to receive real recognition through its introduction as one of five non-statutory cross-curricular themes within the newly introduced National Curriculum. In the context of the many new requirements placed upon schools by the National Curriculum, it is unsurprising that the response of schools to such recommendations was variable, with citizenship education being generally irregular and infrequent, and the absence of reference to citizenship education in the 1993 Dearing Report reinforced the perception that it was not a high priority (Fogelman, 1997).