Ed McGuinness is a founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green at the last General Election.
I have found myself (re)watching The West Wing, one of my favourite TV shows of the early 2000s on Channel 4. Immersing oneself in the machinations of an idealistic US political drama focusing on a Democratic president is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a Conservative like me but it’s fiction, it’s fun and it offers a unique perspective on some issues alongside a tone of aspiration I find refreshing in what can be a brutal realpolitik. A character who is more idealistic than most is the affable, nerdy deputy communications director Sam Seaborne, played by Rob Lowe, who often reaches for the stars.
One quote which always sticks with me is whilst discussing with his on-screen love interest he says:
“Education is the silver bullet.”
This I totally agree with and I do not think falls under the ideological banner outside of realism. Education should be about preparing young people to enter and be fully integrated members of society. Note carefully, I do not mean contributors to society. Contributors to society implies that education need only furnish people with the skills to “make” something (be that a widget or something more intangible). To be fully integrated means not only being able to contribute to society, but to shape that society, to build it and help it to grow responsibly.
I think the UK covers, to a greater or lesser extent, the contributory factor quite well, although there is always more work to be done. As an example, in England, 52 per cent of pupils are achieving grades 5 or above in English and mathematics GCSE; an increase of around ten per cent on 2018/19. Those who go on to achieve degrees are earning an average of £27,400; up £2,200 from six years ago. Then there are non-academic qualifications and apprenticeships which consistently have over 700,000 participants each year.
However, there is a loss of focus on what it means to be a member of our civic society. The National Curriculum does actually cater for citizenship at KS3 and KS4 levels, but if indeed this is assessed, it is surely a side note given the many competing demands on teachers and schools. Charities can play an important role in this. Schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award, the Scouts and Cadet Forces inculcate their members with a set of principles which strive to create a selflessness and desire to protect and preserve our society. I don’t agree that charities exist because it is an area in which Government has failed. The third sector has a huge part to play in providing targeted help to people that the large hand of government simply does not have the dexterity to do so.
The value of civic studies is one that is certainly not paid enough attention to in mainstream education and really ought to form a core part of the skillset we want to imbue our young people with which is as important as numeracy and literacy. A sense of ownership in society, a core Conservative principle, comes not just with physical property but with a more intangible feeling of empowerment in your community. For this reason I argue that a civic society element be implemented as part of a general qualification people must attain at each level of education.
In practice, this could be joining and participating in one of the aforementioned societies as a young teenager. It could also involve recorded voluntary work at residential homes or community projects. In higher education it could take the form of tutoring younger people or, as I did in my degree course, a module whereby I taught mathematics for a term in a local school in a more deprived area. In apprentice courses, it could involve taking part in seminars with younger people about your journey, why you chose an apprenticeship and its value, or perhaps volunteering your skills to a local charity or community group.
The pillars of the Government’s levelling-up strategy include (amongst others): Empowering local leaders and communities and restoring local pride. Both these things require knowledge of one’s community and a sense of achievement and belonging in it. To formalise, or require, a civic element to education, beyond learning the mechanics of elections and voting, surely is essential to the levelling-up agenda, but brings many benefits to society with people, and young people in particular, finding themselves in a position to influence society for the better and achieve a lot more than a grade on a paper.
In ending I will reference the US in another way, this time a real-life president who said:
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
By showing young people the value they possess through their addition to society the UK Government can do something for them but also have them do something for their country – creating that silver bullet.