Learning about law at school is too important to be left to non-curriculum subjects

A couple of weeks ago journalist Neil Rose asked our view for his Guardian article, Is studying law at GCSE and A-level a help or hindrance?. This was my reply.

We believe the school curriculum is vital for giving young people a grasp of the complex systems that govern their lives. We think it is important to educate about the law, be that in GCSE and A-Level Law or the citizenship curriculum. (Part of the citizenship curriculum is about law and justice. Students have to learn about deciding what is fair and unfair in different situations, and about the role of law in keeping order and resolving conflict.)

But we also believe that every student has an entitlement to learn about it, whatever their curriculum choices.

While A-Level law does cover issues, its content generally is more technical. It is more about teaching how the systems work, whereas the citizenship curriculum explores how the law applies to everyday lives. And besides, GCSE and A-Level law are not National Curriculum subjects (that is, teachers are not required to teach them); whereas – at the moment – schools are required to teach the citizenship curriculum.

The law is seen as arbitrary by many people, rather than as something that protects them. How do you help young people understand the reasons for making and changing laws and to appreciate the complex processes involved?

The law evolves constantly. For example, the UK government recently proposed changes to sentencing. But whatever it decides, will it make much difference if people don’t understand what the law is for in the first place?

Our mock trial competitions help over 7,000 school students every year to learn how the law protects people, and about how hard it can be to find the truth even if it looks obvious at first. They pit the students’ wits against each other in real courtrooms with real judges and magistrates. Students must present their case against teams from other schools. First they have to become familiar with the case and research the law. Then they have to battle it out in real courtrooms, in front of real judges and magistrates.

And clearly the legal profession agrees that this sort of education is important. For example, our mock trial competitions alone attract over 1,000 judges, barristers, magistrates and other legal professionals to volunteer their time for the competition.

Our Lawyers in Schools programmes take a different approach. They get over 1,000 young people to meet lawyers as real people they can question, challenge and chat with. And it works:

‘My attitude towards the law has definitely changed. I respect its place in society and how lawyers are there to work and care for our rights,’ says Bahjo from Haverstock School.

So while GCSE and A-Level law are good for students who are already interested enough to take them, learning about law at school is too important to be left to non-curriculum subjects.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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