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As elections rapidly approach in both the United States and the UK, much of the next generation is preparing to cast their first major national ballot. This Generation Z or, ‘Gen Z’ – to loosely categorise those born between 1995 and 2010 – have grown up in a time of political turmoil, with recessions and protests defining their childhood and much of their adolescence. Many are eager to cast a vote for the betterment of their futures and contribute to the political conversation. However, with a distinct lack of formal political education in schools, this raises the question: who and what has influenced the politics of Gen Z?

Despite increasing intergenerational polarisation, in 2024, politics remains an elective course in many UK schools. Whilst citizenship studies have been a part of the secondary school curriculum since 2001, according to a 2023 study by The IPPR, only 42% of teachers say their schools provide civic education. Even where civics is taught, its brief coverage of politics does not allow students to form an independent view of what it truly means to run a country, create effective policy or for a government to meet the needs of the electorate. This is undoubtedly odd; more and more young people are becoming aware of the effect politics has on their lives, yet do not know how to properly approach political discussions, nevermind voting.

A lack of formal political education drives young people to get their political education through other means. Quite often, many will adopt the beliefs of their parents and family by word of mouth – one of the most important influences on a person’s political views throughout their formative years. For instance, if politics is framed in a particular light through discussion at the dinner table, or if a partisan news station has played regularly since you were a child, it is likely that you will adopt the same political ideology rather than reading, watching or discussing different political standpoints. This was evidenced, among others, in a 2021 study, where an analysis of the opinions and lifestyles of 394 families found a significant familial correlation within politics, with the most likely political correlation between parent-to-offspring, and second most common between sibling-to-sibling. 

For those not exposed to lively political discussions at the dinner table, social media has become a popular, instant source of political information. This is no surprise; Gen Z spent their most formative years online where they obtain information for essays, access their schoolwork and, now, decide their views with a hit of the ‘like’ button. 

A common example of political education via social media is the sharing of political infographics. Primarily found on the platform Instagram, infographics exploded in popularity following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. Such infographics will sum up an urgent political situation and usually conclude with a call to action, such as contacts for MPs, donation links and sometimes protest times and places. They cover a wide variety of issues, such as feminism, global politics and social justice issues. Often, they go viral; in a study published in 2021 in Indonesia, those gathering information from social media were subject to viewing the same post or infographic multiple times per day, whether through reposts or sharing with friends.

While some infographics can be truthful and provide accurate information, it can be hard to fact check these posts, especially as their popularity grows. Consequently, these infographics are too often biased and will only tell one side of the story. This is problematic, especially when, in total, roughly 40% of women and 31% of men were shown in the same 2021 study to receive and rely on social media for their political information. Spreading biased – often false – information could prove detrimental to society as a new generation shows up to ballot without an accurate knowledge of political dynamics, decision-making and how it can impact themselves and society. 

In order to equip students with the essential decision-making skills and background knowledge needed to participate in politics, UK schools must make a political education mandatory.

In 2013, the national curriculum was revised for key stage 3 and 4 to include citizenship. The aims of the unbiased curriculum on citizenship included equipping students with the knowledge of how the UK is governed and how to contribute to a democratic society. Yet, a 2018 parliamentary publication stated that schools are not required to follow this guidance, and often opt out of citizenship classes. It recommends mandatory citizenship classes for all ages, yet, as stated earlier, only about 50% of teachers reported their schools teaching politics, citizenship and democracy.

An unbiased political education must be mandatory for the betterment of future generations, and should begin by secondary school – around the age of 11-12 – when adolescents are beginning to grasp the power of their voice in the world of politics. This education should then continue and grow with each school year, building on the basics of the national curriculum guidance to include an explanation of the different political parties, their belief systems and examples of political extremism. These curriculums should also include units dedicated to important leaders and the legislation that was passed under their authority, for instance former US President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act which covered healthcare for millions of uninsured Americans.

Furthermore, whilst some might argue it is hard to teach politics in an unbiased manner, properly trained teachers should be able to educate students strictly on proven facts and not allow their personal beliefs to affect their lessons. Utilising teacher training days in the UK to help equip teachers with these skills to teach politics is a great start to implementing political programs into schools. Teachers are given five days out of the school year for training and consultation with administration. It is perfectly plausible to utilise one of these five to provide information on political education to teachers, explain how to teach the topic and make an effort to implement unbiased lesson plans into the national curriculum.

A decent political education gives hope to the future, and schools need to realise their role in this process. If generations to come are well equipped with the decision-making skills needed to partake in casting a ballot, first-time voters might prove themselves apt for electing a better future.

Hailey Pitcher is a Communications and Events intern at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

[Image: WavebreakMediaMicro]