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Dream School has convinced me we need more not less politics teaching in schools

Posted on 8 March 2011 | 11:03am

As I know from living with a virtually full-time State schools campaigner, education arouses enormous passions and very strong views. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that Jamie Oliver’s Dream School idea has attracted so much publicity and debate.

Challenging kids plus ‘celebs’ plus stereotypes (some promoted, some challenged), plus a decent marketing budget makes for a fair telly mix, and the papers have been full of it. If I had known that the ‘school photo’ was going to appear in so many different papers – here it is again in today’s Guardian as part of a piece in which teachers give their judgement on Episode One – I wouldn’t have borrowed that stripey tie from headteacher John D’Abbro!

Tomorrow night, 9pm Channel 4, I make my debut, and already the programme’s website has shown a couple of trailers here and here and a longer version of my first lesson here . There are plenty more clips of all the different lessons with all the teachers on Youtube. Episode One last week showed up – and this is inevitable given how many hours of footage they have – how editing means people will rarely get the whole story. If you only watched the programme as broadcast, you’d have thought Rolf Harris had been something of a disappointment. In fact on Youtube there is a very touching film of how he brought out a seeming real talent in Ronnie.

Most of the students started out by saying they found politics boring. Some may have felt the same at the end of our course. But many of them didn’t, and I think you’ll see that they are not only bright, and in some cases naturally very political, but they also have some very good ideas.

I have always felt that just as we teach our kids from an early age that family life is important, and sport is good for them, and healthy eating is good for them, so we should do more to teach from primary school on – positively – that politics is a fundamental part of their lives. We should also do more to encourage an interest in world and current affairs. But of course most of the media spends much of its energies giving people reasons to be cynical rather than hopeful about the power of politics to make change for the better.

For those students who think of themselves as bored by politics and current affairs, and for the schools who want to convince them otherwise, there’s a new classroom resource for teachers, providing secondary schools with a specially-tailored daily news service.

www.theday.co.uk is trying to plug the gap between teenagers hungry for an explanation of what is going on in the world, and a mainstream media that either trivialises or overcomplicates the news for them.

The website has three stories daily, delivered online for classroom whiteboards or as an A4 printout, with debating questions, classroom and homework activities, plus links to online background. A Q&A helps put the stories in context, and each one is written to direct the class towards a discussion of a question raised by the story. One of the most enjoyable parts of my Dream School experience was seeing the students engage in real debate, even if sometimes one or two of them went over the top.

The Day has a balance of UK and foreign news, sport, the environment and the dilemmas and issues behind the headlines. Fridays have a news quiz. Recent events in North Africa has seen a new rolling special, free to non-subscribers, not just for kids, but also for parents keen to explain what is going on to their own children.

There are hints around the place that the Government is thinking about removing Citizenship from the curriculum. It would be yet another mistake. Whether we call it Citizenship, Democracy or Politics, there is need for more not less education in this area. It’s why I support the Youth Parliament campaign for politics lessons in both primary and secondary schools, based on a recent set of focus groups. Their research has found that young people have many questions about politics and a hunger for information, but find themselves shut out from the debate.

  • Alastair, there is an existing model, with a brief to deliver exactly this sort of educational programme, on a national level, called the Parliamentary Outreach Programme. Delivered by a small team of experts in a non-partisan way, it allows people to learn about the history of how both parliament and its processes work, teaches a little about the history, explains the structure and the processes, and gives factual information to all participants. Not like a ‘death by powerpoint’ experience at all, from my personal experience (I’ve attended one session in Westminster) I found it very useful and informative, with ample opportunities to ask questions throughout. Perhaps a conversation with the team could lead to something useful developing, hence http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/outreach-and-training/ .

  • Alastair, there is an existing model, with a brief to deliver exactly this sort of educational programme, on a national level, called the Parliamentary Outreach Programme. Delivered by a small team of experts in a non-partisan way, it allows people to learn about the history of how both parliament and its processes work, teaches a little about the history, explains the structure and the processes, and gives factual information to all participants. Not like a ‘death by powerpoint’ experience at all, from my personal experience (I’ve attended one session in Westminster) I found it very useful and informative, with ample opportunities to ask questions throughout. Perhaps a conversation with the team could lead to something useful developing, hence http://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/outreach-and-training/ .

  • Chris lancashire

    Politics lessons in Primary Schools? How New Labour. Forget the basics let’s move on to something sexy and eyecatching and never mind that we produce kids that can’t read or write at 11.
    Stick to politics, leave teaching to those who can.

  • Samuel Thorrington

    The tie is fine. Not really you … but fine. Totally agree re putting the same focus on politics as a positive like sport or diet. Good analogy

  • Pauline Dodds

    I see what you mean re Rolf Harris. He looked a bit out of sorts on the programme last week. The clip you refer to, which is on Youtube, is altogether different in tone and scope. I have seen a clip of your lesson used in trailers in which a girl storms out swearing, but looking at these longer sections on the website and on Youtube it is clear that was an exception rather than the norm. I really hope the intention is not to show the kids as ‘feral’ (to use Jamie Oliver’s unfortunate word last week) whilst saying ‘oh well there is a different story on the website version. That really would be a wasted opportunity. Having watched your longer lesson – I also saw the one you did with Saatchis which was interesting – i would sum up these kids as bright if given a chance

  • Andrea Holmes

    You have missed your vocation. In the long version, you seem to hold their attention extremely well. One of the students said in the Guardian yesterday you managed to win their respect, and that comes through. Starkey behaved like a clown which surprised nobody. I think that having children of your own must have helped you frame your attitude, which is half the battle … I am a teacher. Keep up the fight for good State schools, and for teachers

  • Chris Waller

    Yes, young people are very political BUT there is a need to ensure that we change knowledeg and understanding of politics into change action; how young people use the skills they uniquely acquire in Citizenship education about politics and law into active participation in their community. Only by retaining Citizenship education can this happen. Chris Waller

  • Thank you for raising this issue on your blog Alastair.

    The review of the National Curriculum was launched in January (deadline for responses April 14th: http://www.education.gov.uk/b0073043/remit-for-review-of-the-national-curriculum-in-england/) and the Democratic Life coalition (http://www.democraticlife.org.uk/) is campaigning in support of Citizenship in schools. The more teachers, organisations and individuals that can get involved the better.

    No-one can expects schools to solve all of society’s ills, but with just 44% of 18-24 year olds voting in the 2010 General Election, removing young people’s entitlement to learn about politics in schools would seem like a retrograde step.

    Michael Raftery
    Hansard Society

  • Cursed as I am with a good memory, I can recall the Tories in the 1970s & 80s ranting about teachers filling our precious young folk’s heads with loonie-leftie propaganda. Can’t seem them being too happy about politics being on the curriculum – unless its some bastardised version of Greek democracy to appease Gove’s geeky sensibilities.

    Mind you, in opposition, the Tories happily jumped onto the populist bandwagon that depicts teachers bravely fending off control freak bureaucrats in thrall to Labour’s evil world-domination plans. I wouldn’t bet on the teacher knows best philosophy surviving far into their administration though….

  • Ehtch

    We used to discuss politics in school with teachers, and I remember saying to vote Plaid, everyone, as you do when you are young and immaturelly principled. But when I was seventeen, Thatcher got her foot in the door, which drove me slightly lefter from the then slightly right Plaid.

    Yes, politics has become a taboo for teachers to do, because they do not know who is lurking the otherside of the classroom door, post-1979. A form of paranoia for the teachers, you could say. Bit like North Korea, Britsh style, or even McCathyism of early 1950’s US, with all it’s irrational hysteria.

    The 1980’s in this country wasn’t nice, at all.

  • Stephen Clark

    How about every MP once a month going into a comprehensive school in their constituency to do a Question and Answer session with the teenagers? Teenagers find politics boring because too many politicians don’t know how to communicate with them.

  • Tom

    I’ve seen The Day used in classrooms – excellent for starting debates and engaging students, even first thing in the morning! Reading their website, it says their news service is aimed at secondary schools, which is sensible. I think primary schools could do without learning too much about current affairs, but rather, should learn what the world ought to be like.

  • Gilliebc

    Completely agree AC that politics should be taught in schools.
    We were taught about it at my school and I found it fascinating. Have to say that not many of my fellow classmates felt the same as me about it though. Except a couple of boys.
    We were taught in a non-partisan way, very much like Paul Hadley describes in his comment on this page. We also learned about the American system as well.

  • Ehtch

    How’s this Alastair, with your languages, Alpine french, Belle et Sebastien,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGGyYzescFM&NR=1

  • Ehtch

    Good map of Celtic Europe here in the first few seconds, before the Romans butted in with their poxy Olive Oil. Butter is better, as long you don’t burn it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktkG2k83Ync

  • Gegelebeau

    The political system is interested in dumbing down the population or giving the illusion of participation with election events and non-choices politically every few years (the ping-pong of British elections). The reality is surely about the concentration of power and decision making and the narrowing of democracy because it is a threat to elites who see in it the seeds of their own demise. A truly democratic system would never have allowed the war in Iraq to take place. No, the people are to be slowly dissolved, atomised while the illusions and democratic myth-making are promulgated with greater intensity so that the centre can continue to try to hold.

  • Cllr. Ralph Baldwin

    Actually I was impressed, have just watched this on TV and I find myself in full agreement with Alastair.
    I thought he hadled the class of kids right and probably did something few people do, actually let them speak out and treat them with a degree of dignity and showing them their views matter.

    Never thought I would ever say this, but well done Alastair Cambell.

  • Peter Jones

    Hi Alastair, at a recent press ball we were discussing you, and I said that one of your qualities was that you let people feel you are listening to them. This is evident in interviews you have given over the years.My own experience is from a lunch we both attended in Edinburgh, we engaged robustly but that etiquette of engagement you’re clearly so strong on helped the debate.
    In the Jamie programme this is clearly a fundamental requirement for meaningful engagement, as I’ve always believed. Power to your elbow Alastair.

  • S Amott

    excellent blog!! Please can you show your support for citizenship by taking part in the review and encourging others to do so! I belive you could really make a difference in keeping this subject in our school!

  • T Campbell

    I thought last night’s episode of Dream School profoundly depressing. The apparent determination of some to tolerate and award respect in the face of rude, loutish behaviour is deeply patronising and unhelpful to the young people themselves. The whole philosophy of this exercise is misguided and, for these 17/18 yr olds, probably about 10 years too late.
    T. Campbell