Each session, the House of Lords appoints four ad hoc select committees to undertake inquiries on specific topics. In the first part of the current two-year session, one has been on citizenship and civic engagement. Its report, The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century, was published last month. It is a substantial document and can be read here.
I have a particular interest in citizenship education. Although it is on the national curriculum, schools lack the incentives to take it seriously and so often fail to devote adequate resources to ensure it is taught effectively. The committee provides a damning critique (pp. 27-43), concluding: ‘The Government has allowed citizenship education in England to degrade to a parlous state. The decline of the subject must be addressed in its totality as a matter of urgency.’
Citizenship education can fulfil an invaluable, indeed necessary, role in ensuring we have a citizenry that understands our political system, not simply its structure, but why it matters to everyone. As the committee notes, ‘citizenship education can also go some way toward mending the democratic inequality that exists in society’. James Weinberg of Sheffield University of Sheffield told the committee: ‘We have evidence … that citizenship education, where it is done effectively and consistently, can predict political efficacy, participation and levels of knowledge.’
My experience is that where politics is taught at A-level, it is taught well and often with enthusiasm, producing some highly informed sixth-form students. Unfortunately, not all schools offer Politics A-level and in any event it is an option, taken usually by a small number of keen students. It is therefore crucial to ensure that citizenship education is well taught to all pupils. However, there is little to ensure schools take it seriously. As the committee recorded, there is a need for specialised teachers and for ‘a restoration of the status of citizenship as a subject worth teaching’. It recommended that the Government establish a target of having enough trained citizenship teachers to have a citizenship specialist in every school and that citizenship qualifications ‘feature active citizenship projects as a substantial part of the qualification’.
In the view of the committee, there should be a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from primary to secondary education, inspected by Ofsted to ensure quantity and quality of provision. ‘Ofsted should give consideration to this in deciding whether a school should be rated as Outstanding’.
This would be a step forward. If something schools are expected to do does not contribute to Ofsted ratings or to their place in league tables, they tend not to take it that seriously. Schools may give lip service to the importance of citizenship education, but they need incentives to ensure it is delivered effectively. Parliament needs to be alert to what is required and pressing Government accordingly. There will be a cost in order to ensure the resources are there, but it is essential to a healthy polity. At a time when politics is increasingly marked by tribalism and sound bites substituting for debate, the more the need for a politically literate population.