Devolution, political engagement and the role of adult education

With the forthcoming Scottish referendum, the UK potentially faces unprecedented changes to its democracy structures.

Despite this, citizens are becoming increasingly politically apathetic. They often feel the political class does not represent their views and concerns.

With the economy still reeling from the shock of recession, we are facing both a fiscal and democratic deficit. Politics is becoming a minority interest, with the young in particular disinterested in the political and policy making process.

Many fear the power and influence of the political classes, but also expect that they will fix things for us. The gap between the citizen and those that represent us is increasing and there is not enough direct engagement at a local or national level to bring them together.

This forms the backdrop to the Scottish referendum this September and the UK General Election in May 2015.

The stakes are very high. If Scotland votes yes, the Labour party stands to lose a lot of safe seats and the political balance of the rest of the UK will shift. If the Scottish vote no, there will still be a substantial minority in Scotland who want further powers to be devolved and some in England who will resent the degree of independence Scotland has compared to the rest of the UK.

Through our work in adult education in both England and Scotland, the WEA is to encouraging political education and debate. The work we do on political literacy is vitally important. Not only is it needed to encourage participation – it also enables us to widen the debate to include socially isolated communities and all sections of the population.

Recent OECD research shows we suffer from major skill gaps and many young people and adults lack basic skills in literacy and numeracy. As the OECD Secretary General, Angel Gurria, said “the impact of skills goes far beyond earnings and employment. In all countries, individuals with lower proficiency in literacy are more likely…to believe that they have little impact on political processes.” According to NIACE one in five adults participate in education compared to three in five in comparable countries in Euro Zone and Scandinavia.

This is an issue we need to address urgently.

Part of the WEA response to the democratic deficit is to build our national campaigning voice on behalf of our students and our movement. One of our campaigns is centred on encouraging local and national participation in politics and over the coming months we will be helping our members and students to understand the issues that concern people locally. We will be encouraging them to arrange events with prospective candidates for the local and European elections as well as facilitating discussions about the impact of the Scottish referendum.

We will also be publishing our own Manifesto in May 2014 and sharing our recommendations with the main parties in England.

Alongside this, we will continue to engage with colleagues and partners to further develop and embed our teaching and learning across the four nations of the UK.

Whichever government is in power we need to reinforce principles of democratic engagement and accountability. Education has a major role to play.

Ruth Profile

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