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What legal issue/topic should be introduced into secondary school education and why?

The government currently provides some compulsory legal education throughout primary and secondary schools; however, this is limited to few specific areas. Employment rights are a key legal issue often left untouched. Employment-related legal issues are some of the most common faced by individuals throughout the UK yet also one of the areas where individuals are most likely to feel they have insufficient knowledge of their rights. The consequences of a lack of understanding in this area can have far reaching effects for the individual and society.

From September 2020 a large amount of PSHE education became compulsory in all schools.[1] The government provides statutory guidance on what topics must be covered at each key stage of education. The legal issues covered in secondary schools includes (but is not limited to): consent, domestic abuse, online behaviour (including ‘sexting’), gender identity, hate crime, substance misuse, gang violence, and radicalisation.[2]

Most government mandated legal education covers emerging and serious criminal offences, teaching secondary students the behaviour they should avoid and how to recognise sexual and violent exploitation. Whilst explicit mention is made to ‘gang exploitation’, no mention is made to workplace exploitation. Even within the non-statutory recommended curriculum, the dedicated ‘Employment Rights and Responsibilities’ section focuses on employee responsibilities of ‘professional conduct’, ‘following health and safety protocols,’ and ‘workplace confidentiality’, with only a cursory mention of ‘the role of trade unions’.[3]

Employment issues are one of the most prevalent legal issues faced by individuals. According to a 2019/20 technical report, employment-related issues were the third most common legal issues experienced by adults in England and Wales over the four previous years.[4] While ‘defective goods/services’ and ‘anti-social behaviour by neighbours’ were more common issues, within the same survey individuals rated the seriousness of employment-related problems as higher than other problems, with consumer problems rated lowest.[5] Furthermore, younger people are more likely to face employment-related legal issues.[6] The evidence therefore suggests that after leaving school the most common serious legal issues that young people face are related to employment.

In England and Wales there is a significant lack of legal capability and knowledge, particularly in the employment-related problems. Between 2010-2012 The English and Welsh Civil and Social Justice Panel Survey (CSJPS) found that individuals’ knowledge of employment rights and welfare entitlements fell below 40%.[7] The same survey found that once people encountered a legal issue ‘those who knew little or nothing about their legal rights progressed very little.’[8] Many people were unaware their problems were legal ones. The CSJPS found that only 16% of people catagorised their issue as being ‘legal’ despite all the problems listed being justiciable; instead, around 44% of respondents catagorised their problem as ‘bad luck/part of life.’[9] This suggests a large proportion of the population who encounter employment-related legal issues are unaware of their rights and unlikely to pursue a solution.

The consequences of a lack of knowledge in employment legal education are substantial for the individual and society. The CJSPS found that 47.8% of respondents with employment-related legal issues suffered problems with their health and wellbeing and 67.7% reported adverse consequences.[10] Individuals with low levels of legal capability were found to be twice as likely to experience stress-related ill-health and loss of income as a result of their legal problems.[11] A 2018 research report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found a lack of knowledge of their rights was a common barrier to individuals accessing justice around issues relating to employment law and often those who had been unable to resolve an employment issue became unemployed and had to claim welfare benefits.[12] A report by Law For Life describes the cost of unresolved legal issues to individuals and the economy as ‘staggering’ and cites previous research estimating this cost over 3-5 years at over £13 billion.[13] Specifically regarding employment, a 2010 paper by Citizens Advice found that for every £1 spent on employment advice the state saved £7.13.[14] The cost of not teaching employment rights is therefore tangible and substantial.

While several important legal issues are currently in secondary schools, there is a lack of education on employment-related legal issues despite these being the most common legal issues young people face after leaving school. This has left a large proportion of people facing problems they are unaware of being justiciable and therefore not pursuing legal resolutions – at great cost to the individual and society. As these factors are all particularly prevalent in employment-related legal issues, this creates a compelling argument for the introduction into secondary school education.

Written By: Ameila Oxborrow

StreetLaw Essay Competition Winner 2021

[1] [2] page 30 [3] page 38 [4] page 9 [5] Ibid., page 15 [6] Ibid., page 11 [7] page 16 [8] Ibid., page 16 [9] page 37 [10] Ibid., page 35 [11] page 3 [12] page 28 [13] page 14 [14] page 1

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