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Young people should be taught skills to challenge what they see online – Labour

Young people should be taught critical-thinking skills throughout school so they are confident to “speak up” about things they see and read online, the shadow education secretary has said.

Bridget Phillipson said pupils should know how to “challenge” numbers in the media and “measure the claims politicians make” through their knowledge of maths.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) in Liverpool, Ms Phillipson said young people live in a world of “social media and uncounted TV channels” and artificial intelligence (AI) means authenticity is “harder than ever to recognise”.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson (PA)

Ms Phillipson told school and college leaders on Saturday: “Our young people need, more than ever before, to be questioning, critical, discerning.

“They need the confidence to speak up and to speak out, the wise scepticism about the things they see and read, the belief in the social bonds that hold us together, the humanity of each of us and all of us.”

Ms Phillipson said young people eligible to vote for the first time in forthcoming elections have “grown up in a world changing faster than ever”.

She said: “A world of smartphones and tablets – unheard of 19 years back – a world of social media and uncounted TV channels, of films and images shared from goodness knows where.

“A world of fake news, of international relations slowly chilling, of our security threatened by bots and lies, as well as tanks and planes.

“A world where the galloping advance of technology, in particular of artificial intelligence, means that authenticity and originality are harder than ever to recognise and value.

“A world where the progress we made, as women, as a country, in tackling sexism, advancing equality, in building a free and fair society, is under threat from a tide of misogyny that parents and teachers don’t even see.

“I know how seriously you take those concerns. I hear about them in school after school, from parent after parent, but I don’t see that concern matched in Whitehall.”

Ms Phillipson added: “We cannot, as a country, just throw up our hands in despair. Our education system has to meet all of those challenges, and if I am your secretary of state, it will.”

Speaking to the media, Ms Phillipson said Labour plans to embed critical thinking “throughout the curriculum” – including in maths and history – and it will task its curriculum and assessment review to look at how this is done.

She told the PA news agency: “There are lots of ways in which we can encourage that kind of challenge, that scrutiny, that questioning that allows young people to think critically about what’s in front of them.”

In a speech on Saturday morning, the shadow education secretary said it was not just about teaching language and oracy skills.

Ms Phillipson added: “It’s about being confident enough with mathematics, to know to challenge the numbers in the newspapers and measure the claims politicians make; about learning from history, and its limits,

“Understanding what we don’t know as well as what we do, so we are wary of narratives, as well as drawn to them.

“It’s about knowing enough about how images are created, to be wary of taking at face value the pictures that we are shown.”

The shadow education secretary said: “Right across education, in every discipline, at every age, it’s about instilling the critical thinking, the questioning spirit, which must be at the heart of how learning lives on, long after we have left school.

“That is what we want to see not just in our classrooms and schools, but across our society.”