It was announced this month that a subject named Politics and Society will be added to the Leaving Certificate Curriculum from 2016, with the first formal exams taking place in 2018. The course will cover topics such as power and decision, rights and responsibilities, globalisation and identity, and sustainable development. Students will be exposed to the ideas of the main political thinkers historically and at present, ranging from the revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, to US economist Milton Friedman, a major advocate of the free market.
Described by Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan as an opportunity for students to “explore how politics affects communities on a national and international level,” it will “provide them with an understanding of how power works in a democratic society and how they can play an active and engaged role in public debate.”
It is in theory a positive step in stimulating political engagement. Irish politics has been re-energised by public involvement – particularly in the wake of the economic crash, there are protests left, right and centre. The appearance of new political parties such as Renua, Stop the Water Tax Socialist Party, and the Anti-Austerity Alliance People Before Profit Party, has added a new dimension to the Irish political scene.
CSPE and Curriculum
This development is long overdue. Democracy is founded on the principle of the decision of the majority, but for the majority to decide, they must first be informed. It is often cited that CSPE has failed as a subject to inform students on the basic operation of politics, and the absence until now of a follow-on subject at Leaving Certificate only deepens the crevice this has created.
While CSPE is intended to encourage citizenship, it is commonly seen as a fluffy subject, an easy grade requiring little study. According to Dr Ann Devitt, Assistant Professor in Modern Languages at Trinity, the issue lies “on how it is assessed.” The fact that the education system is so heavily based on the exam-driven culture currently thriving in schools, in Dr Devitt’s opinion, has a negative impact on teaching and learning in schools. One would hope that Politics and Society would encourage active learning, but this may ultimately be quashed by the race for students to achieve as many points as possible.
The reality of the situation is that some students leave school unable to distinguish between the role of Taoiseach and that of Uachtarán na hÉireann, and unaware of the left-right divide in politics. Although this is not the case for a lot of students, there is certainly scope for politics to be better administered in schools, and for the lacuna to be filled. Ivana Bacik, Associate Professor in the School of Law and Independent Senator for the Dublin University constituency, agrees that this course will ensure the provision of “a basic foundation in civic awareness” for all second level students, regardless of the career path they follow upon leaving school.
This brings to light the current question of lowering the voting age to 16. Bacik would favour this change as it would help to “increase levels of engagement with the political process among young people.” But in order for this to be worthwhile, the youth must be informed, ensuring young people have the necessary tools to make informed decisions.
The curriculum includes in its objectives an “understanding of concepts which underpin contemporary systems of government and of the diverse models for making these concepts operational,” and a focus in another section on debating and discussing ideas on being an effective and active citizen. The word “debate” surfaces multiple times as a core aim and method of the course. This is an opportunity to correct the shortcomings of our political education. However, it is possible that the subject will turn out to be similar to its older sibling, and become another fluff subject. Bacik hopes the course will focus on various aspects of governance in Ireland including the legislative process and the content of the constitution.
If structured correctly, it holds potential to be extremely engaging and challenging. Ideally, students will be equipped with a better working knowledge of the way the world functions. In covering a range of social and political theories, and studying how they relate to current issues, the course, according to Jan O’Sullivan, will endeavour to develop critical thinking skills among students and to encourage active citizenship. Though the extreme exam-focus highlighted by Dr Devitt, may pose some issues in terms of the efficacy of the programme. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the education system to be reviewed in its entirety, to determine if such exam-based learning is really the best means of education?
Dr Niamh Connolly of the School of Law, has highlighted the benefit of having a diverse range of knowledge upon leaving school. Her view is that it does not benefit students to specialise too narrowly before university: “It’s good for all of us to know something about different fields before we choose to specialise.” Therefore, this course will not only benefit future students of politics and law; it will also equally benefit students entering into other disciplines.
When asked about the necessary preparation for a student entering university, she responded that students do not necessarily “have to come to university knowing lots about their chosen course already. I think that a student could study Physics or Spanish or Politics as an optional Leaving Certificate subject and be equally well-equipped in each case – perhaps with slightly different approaches, methods and perspectives – to study Law at university.”
While this does not particularly support the argument that Law and Politics students are under-equipped on entering university, it does support the contention that students entering into other domains will have benefitted from studying Politics in the same way that a Political Science student will benefit from having studied Chemistry. Accordingly, it is fair to conclude that not only will the new subject naturally benefit prospective Law and Political Science students, it will benefit everyone, no matter what domain they are continuing onto.
In the United Kingdom, Law schools frequently prefer Law students not to have taken Law as an A-level as it may teach students to think in the incorrect way. This further supports the need for a well-rounded political education at secondary school level for the benefit of all the students who will never study Politics, Law or Society again. It gives them the basics in order to stimulate them to keep actively engaged in politics outside the domain of work or study. It seems to be more beneficial to students in general, rather than being beneficial to a particular class of students.
Are young students interested in politics? If not, perhaps it is due to a lack of exposure, which should be rectified by the course. Leinster House is well accustomed to protests, and perhaps the most significant indicator of public engagement was the debate and activity surrounding the Marriage Equality Referendum. In the months leading up to the referendum many third-level institutions launched extensive voting registration drives on campus to ensure maximum participation of young people, whereas up until that point, student participation in elections and referendums had been quiet.
Many school-goers are not of voting age, but nevertheless, this did not stop secondary school students from engaging in the debate. It was an issue that affected many of them directly, so although unable to vote, they took to social media, and to the streets, to campaign for their rights, urging people to vote where they could not. Mount Temple School Students drew the gay pride flag in the shape of a rainbow outside the school gates in support of the Yes Campaign, and in a school referendum 89% of the students voted Yes. This is a good example of the commitment and resolution of school students to become politically active, showing that if given the necessary tools, they will have their voices heard.
When asked about the challenge of engaging young people in politics, Dr Devitt responded that the issue is “to engage students and people of any age in issues of importance to civil society, in global and local terms.” The new course has “more power” to achieve this as it would have “value” in the current points system, meaning that students would be eager to take it.
This raises the question of why students study in the first place. Surely it is paradoxical that students would be encouraged to study Politics and Society because of the points value it can offer, when the core idea of studying politics is not the emphasis on rote-learning, but in fact the development of critical thinking skills? Dr Devitt points out that if the subject is aimed at developing critical thinking skills, “one would hope that students would come to question this value system as part of the course.”
Naturally, the idea of teaching politics at school level comes with it the fear of a biased curriculum. Who is to say that the curriculum will not teach students to believe in a certain set of values? Luckily, the government itself will not be designing the curriculum. This operation is managed through the NCAA and generally engages any interested parties in consultation. Moreover, the NCAA has consulted the student body quite widely in recent years through designing and developing courses, so this will likely occur for the creation of the new course.
But although the NCAA is independent to a certain extent, it is fundamentally an instrument of the state. Dr Devitt would be amazed if it were to promote anarchy. But she would also be surprised if the course did not promote critical thinking. So, if the course was to be inherently biased, if successfully taught, the students should be able to pick up on this as a result. If they did, then the course would have achieved its goal.