Skip navigation
5th Nov 2021 12:20pm News

In Support of Political Literacy: ACT’s response to new research

In response to recent research about the state of political education in schools, ACT gives its position.

In Support of Political Literacy: ACT’s response to research on the current provision and practice of democracy education in school

The Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT) advises and works with government departments on education policy to strategically support political literacy and democracy education in schools. Through the provision of a high-quality Citizenship curriculum and ongoing teacher CPD opportunities, ACT also serves to benefit trained specialists as well as practitioners new to the subject so they feel prepared to deliver citizenship education in their classrooms.

This week, the APPG on Political Literacy, chaired by Shout Out UK, met on the inaugural Political Literacy Day. Held during Parliament Week, 1-7 November 2021, Political Literacy Day is a celebration of the achievements of a wide coalition of civil society organisations, schools, teachers and young people to highlight that Political Literacy is a non-partisan issue – and a necessary part of the school experience for every young person.

The Political Literacy Day also saw the release of the APPG-commissioned research, entitled ‘An Updated Evaluation of the Provision, Practice and Politics of Democratic Education in English Secondary Schools and the attitude held by parents and teachers towards Political Literacy Education’, by Dr James Weinberg from the University of Sheffield. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, it’s the largest report on teacher and parental attitudes towards Political Literacy education since 2000, and calls for more strategic investment in teacher training and continued professional development.

Key Findings

  • Democratic education is a peripheral feature of secondary education in English schools. There are also inequalities in provision that favour students in fee-paying schools or maintained secondary schools serving affluent communities.
  • Competing demands on time, expertise, and curriculum content are identified by teachers as the three biggest obstacles to effective democratic education in English secondary schools.
  • The vast majority of teachers feel responsible for developing young people’s political literacy, but only 1% feel fully prepared to do so.
  • Teachers across all curriculum areas are being asked to deliver democratic education in some format or frequency.
  • Teachers score higher than the wider English population in a basic test of political knowledge, but less than half self-report regularly using an open classroom climate in their teaching and less than a fifth feel ‘very’ confident when teaching sensitive or controversial issues.
  • Parents are overwhelmingly supportive of democratic education as a feature of English secondary schooling. They attribute equal importance to it alongside subjects like Chemistry, History and Geography as preparation for adult life in modern Britain.
  • Although supportive of democratic education, half of parents retain concerns about ideological bias in the classroom. These concerns are noticeably stronger among right-wing parents.
  • Teachers are more left-leaning than similarly educated members of the English public, but there is no evidence of a link between ideology and teachers’ use of an open classroom climate (i.e. encouraging a balanced consideration of multiple political viewpoints).
  • When it comes to teaching democratic education effectively, there is clear evidence of a training effect. Teachers trained in cognate disciplines in the Humanities are more likely to utilise an open classroom climate, more confident teaching sensitive or controversial issues, and more likely to have personal experience of political participation in civic life.

The report makes the following recommendations to improve the state of democratic education:

  1. Rapidly scale up ITT provisions for democratic education;
  2. Support ITT providers to embed modules on democratic education within all ITT schemes;
  3. Work more closely with external partners to create and disseminate resources or CPD packs for teachers that help utilise declarative (fact-based) and procedural (skills-based) pedagogies, in both discrete subjects, and across the curriculum.

Response to this research

ACT welcomes these recommendations, and has long-called for financial support for citizenship trainee teachers, which are clearly in short supply – currently around 50 training to be citizenship teachers.

Earlier this year ACT received funding from the NCS Trust C.I.C. to help develop a national programme to embed citizenship into schools. This includes funding to develop ITE modules and resources and training events and online CPD to support every teacher in developing their understanding of the subject. ACT has also established its Early Career Network to work with all trainees, and support NASBTT in delivering specialist subject support for trainee teachers and those new to citizenship – even if they are experienced teachers. This should help bolster provision by non-specialist teachers.

ACT works with a wide range of organisational partners to develop support for Citizenship including UK Parliament Education and Engagement, The Politics Project, Votes for Schools, the Bingham Centre, the Political Studies Association, The British Library and more and we quality-assure third party resources using an independent panel so that Citizenship teachers can be confident in the resources they are using with their learners.

Looking forward

We are the proud, lead provider of specialist Citizenship CPD, with ongoing projects on the deliberative classroom, media literacy, teaching conspiracy theories, and sustainable citizenship. ACT looks forward to working with colleagues at the University of Sheffield, the APPG and its members to ensure that teaching political literacy is better understood and becomes a guaranteed part of effective and sustainable citizenship education in every school.

We are fully in support of Lord Knight’s Education Bill to reform the National Curriculum citizenship programme of study and encourage the government to go further make Citizenship statutory in primary schools as well.

Furthermore, we look forward to continuing to work with all our partners to support teachers in developing skills and confidence in delivering political literacy within Citizenship and to ensure every young person receives the highest quality provision of democratic education.