It is widely thought that everything used to be better in our day, whoever “our” is and whenever that “day” might have been. This is generally rubbish, obviously. Take A-levels: even if maybe they were harder back in the day, so what? They are a lot more interesting now. I am especially envious of those studying politics at A-level. It sounds so fascinating, relevant and necessary. My daughter is one of them. One morning, I asked her what they would be looking at in class and she said: “Oh God, we’re doing anarchism at the moment – it’s so boring.” How can anarchism, of all things, be boring? Perhaps she had chanced on anarchism’s central flaw: all that abolishing-government carry-on is not as exciting as it sounds. Newsflash: anarchism is boring; there’s a T-shirt slogan there, I’m sure.
Generally, though, she is fascinated by the subject. I love that, because it has given me the opportunity to share with her all the political knowledge I have accumulated over the past half century. How deeply the child drinks from the fount of her father’s wisdom. Or perhaps not. Only this weekend, as we engaged in research, watching that historical drama The Crown, I posited the idea that Margaret Thatcher was not hung up about being lower middle class. “Of course she wasn’t,” my daughter eye-rolled in an everyone-knows-that kind of way. Just to take the evening’s source material even more highbrow than The Crown, I started her on The West Wing, from the very beginning.
Somewhat inspired by my daughter’s adventures in this field, we have started recruiting A-level politics students on to the politics show I do on BBC Radio 5 live. Each Thursday, on Question Time Extra Time, one of them comes on alongside the pundits and assorted clever clogs. Professionally, it has been one of the more rewarding experiences I have had this year. More than once, the grownups in the room have had to acknowledge that the student is putting us to shame.
I knew it would be good when our first one popped up to join us: Ryan from Barton Peveril sixth form college in Eastleigh, Hampshire.
“How are you doing, Ryan?”
“Living the dream,” he said happily. “Living the dream.”
I rejoice in the cheerful, cheeky confidence of youth. And the intelligence, curiosity and humility, too. Ryan told me he was a passionate socialist and advocate of social justice, so he knew what he believed in, but chose to study politics because he wanted to expose himself “to the differing views and ideologies of people my age who are politically active”. What? No echo chamber? There must be something wrong with the lad. Just so you know, I have a keen ear for BS: I know when someone is trotting out something they have worked out will sound good, and when they really mean it. This was the latter.
Interestingly, Ryan also spoke of a “misconception that young people are more liberal and more leftwing. There’s definitely a variety of views. Sometimes, I do find it hard to find reason within the ideologies; we’ve got a few Thatcherites in our class.”
Thatcherites? Good heavens! By my reckoning, his classmates weren’t born until 13 years after she was dethroned.
I was charmed, too, by the only student we have had on from a private school: Gen, from St Helen & St Katharine school in Abingdon, Oxfordshire. Why politics? “Well, it’s everything, isn’t it? I love it. My lessons are never, ever boring. Every week we talk not just about the syllabus, but about how it applies to the news that week.” Sounds good to me.
As for the political drift of her classmates at this £17,000-a-year establishment, she said: “There were a few hardcore Tories, but I like to think I’ve pulled them towards the Liberal Democrats at least, or even Green.” No mention of Labour here, you will note, but there you go. As for the obvious, arguably cheap-shot question of how she feels about the millions of students in state schools who had not had all the online tuition she had enjoyed so much this year, she just said: “I feel awful.” There is not a lot you can come back with there.
Ewan, from Pembrokeshire college in Haverfordwest, was another impressive character. He said his earliest memory of politics was Barack Obama’s inauguration speech in 2009. Wow, that’s quite a start. “Things have deteriorated quite significantly since then,” he said sadly.
He went on to praise his teacher: “It’s brilliant the way she brings in different views in the classroom. I think a lot of people would fear the teacher would disagree with them and see them differently, but it’s never like that.”
This rather flies in the face of fears that politics teachers may be imposing their views on students. I am sure that goes on, but I can’t bring myself to worry about it much. What we could choose to worry about instead is how the appreciation of the complexities of policy matters that A-level students gain will probably drain away as the chill wind of “real” politics blows through. Molly, from Woodhouse sixth-form college in Barnet, north London, said she found it “interesting to see how different people think and how different people believe in different policies. Everyone has an opinion that can be taken into consideration; everything is on the table.”
If only the real world were like that; as we all know, the only thing on the table tends to be your own view – or those of your tribe – and everyone else is either stupid or evil. Also on the same show as Molly was the political strategist Salma Shah, who confessed to a mere B grade in A-level politics. We had been talking earlier about the need for more clarity in government messaging. But then 17-year-old Molly said her A-level had taught her: “Nothing in global politics is black and white; everything is complicated.”
Salma and I had to break it to her, only partly in jest, that this kind of nuanced, non-binary thinking will get you nowhere in politics. Discuss. Now, there is a half-decent essay question.
• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist
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