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Richard Addis started The Day, an online newspaper for schools to combat ignorance of politics and the world amongst the young
‘Am I being unreasonable to think that teenagers should know something of the world?’ So reads the title of a recent 190-post thread on Mumsnet.
The horror stories flow thick and fast.
‘I was once guest lecturer at a film class… The 16-18 year olds had never heard of Charlie Chaplin.’
‘I know of someone who (at the age of 24), thought that each country in the world had its own sun. This woman is well spoken, literate, educated (apparently), and certainly doesn’t come across as dim.’
After a year of talking to teenagers about The Day (www.theday.co.uk), our daily news service for secondary schools, I know that these are not isolated examples. Knowledge of current affairs among British teenagers covers the gamut from threadbare to infinitesimal.
If it is not going to affect their grades at IGCSE and A level, then why does it matter?
First, don’t be so sure about those grades. There is rapidly growing evidence that discussing current affairs regularly with a teacher or parent has a marked effect on reading levels. According to an OECD survey of 14 countries published in November last year, 15- year-olds who discuss news just once a week have a reading ability 28% better than those who don’t.
Why? One teacher I met recently said: ‘It’s a competitive thing: you debate the summer riots. Someone else knows more than you. You go away and read up about the subject so that she won’t make you look silly next time. You begin to acquire authority. People listen to your views. You read to sustain that respect.’
There is plenty of research that debating news issues is great for ‘personal learning and thinking skills’ – a jargon-y way of describing ‘thinking for yourself ’. Getting the very top grades in A levels now requires an ability to do your own independent research, creative thinking and bias detection. Which is exactly what you do when you read an important news story, discuss it and try and work out where you stand.
But it is beyond exam grades that familiarity with current affairs really helps. Everyone’s talking about non cognitive skills (or ‘soft’ skills or ‘transferable’ skills) these days. These are the hard-to-pin-down gifts such as confidence, articulacy, and an awareness of the wider world that really good schools impart to their pupils.
Some schools are now hiring Oxbridge college lecturers to coach students in writing their personal statements and doing university interviews. One such ‘coach’ told me that colleges are, understandably, looking for recruits who will do well: ‘They need to show a convincing interest in their subject and the best way to do that is to explain why it matters to the world and to them.’ Making the link between academic study and the real world is key.
This is precisely the area where Independent schools have traditionally been so much more effective than their maintained counterparts. Schools such as Alleyn’s, Westminster, Wellington, Lancing, Oundle and Bedales have all recently subscribed to The Day in order to reinforce their efforts to show pupils that everything they learn in the classroom is directly related to what is going on around them in the ‘real world’.
‘Keeping our boys and girls abreast of important current affairs such as the Arab Spring and the catastrophe at Fukushima nuclear plant is vital,’ one energetic headmaster told me. ‘Not only do they get to see the point of learning, their knowledge of the outside world helps them to find their voice and discover who they really are – and it is that quality that makes them so much more convincing in any sort of social encounter, including the all important interviews for university.’
It’s no surprise that the better State schools are now seeking to emulate the public schools in this regard. ‘If places like Westminster are doing it,’ said one department head at Holland Park Comprehensive, ‘then of course we want to do it too. We’ve got to help students gain the confidence that gives them the best chance of competing for the top prizes in life.’
Finally, knowing your news is becoming vital to getting a job. Last September, ICM Research interviewed 500 UK chief executives about the importance of current affairs. Astonishingly, they voted knowledge of the wider world as being more important in the workplace than degree or A-level results.
Which does not bode well for the Mumsnet blogger whose 19-year-old friend still does not realise ‘we live on an island and that Holland is abroad.’