Last year Shout Out UK was one of several organisations that submitted evidence to the House of Lords. With that information, a Select Committee submitted recommendations to Theresa May’s government on Citizenship and Civic Engagement.
A substantial part of this umbrella term is political literacy and democratic education. There were 71 recommendations made in total, published in a 44-page report. Luckily, Shout Out has condensed the relevant information into six simple points.
1) ‘British values’ are important, and they will stay.
One of the Lords’ first criticisms was around the use of the term ‘fundamental British values‘ in official guidance and education. They recommended instead something more inclusive, like ‘Shared Values of British Citizenship’.
While the government acknowledged these concerns, there will be no change. It has instead stated that institutions are now familiar with using the original term, and pushing them to change would be more of a hindrance than a help.
2) Citizenship already exists in state education
The Lords take their point further. They said the Government should outline what these ‘Shared Values of British Citizenship’ would mean for each department, and state how they can each be promoted. The Lords offered ‘sport, leisure, arts and culture’ as their recommendations.
In their response, the Government instead decided to prioritise education. They spoke of the value of teaching citizenship as part of PSHE, but also through other lessons — such as History, English and Geography. They then spoke of higher education establishments, which teach citizenship through tolerance and inclusion.
There was then a small segment dedicated to sport, in which the Government acknowledged the importance of participation in sport. Arts and culture were not addressed.
3) The government admit political literacy is important.
The Government states that:
‘we want all pupils to understand democracy, government and how laws are made …we want children and young people to use this understanding to become constructive, active citizens’.
This was in response to the Lords’ suggestion that Ofsted should regulate the teaching of citizenship in schools. While the response shows that the Government is aware of the many benefits of political literacy, they rejected these suggestions, stating that it is not Ofsted’s duty to comment on individual subjects.
Following this, the Lords suggest that the Government should at least install a target-based system which looks at recruiting citizenship teachers. It suggested an overall objective of having a citizenship specialist in every secondary school. The Government has said it has no intention of using its current model to set targets.
4) Applying pressure on the Government
Perhaps the most striking blow to Government policy can be found in recommendation 16:
‘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’.
While the Government deny any intention of touching the curriculum in this Parliament, the comment did encourage a more open answer on democratic education:
‘We have made it clear that citizenship education can support schools to deliver their duties regarding the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils … the revised citizenship programme of study includes teaching about democracy, government, how laws are made and upheld, the diverse identities of the UK and the need for mutual respect and understanding’.
5) The ‘free market’ approach to education.
What this all reflects is the May Government’s ‘free market’ approach to education.
Mrs May views this area of Government policy in a somewhat Thatcherite way — she does not see much benefit in regulating education in any extensive capacity. This extends to democratic education, and the Government admits that ‘the Department for Education does not specify how schools teach citizenship as a subject’.
The paper is peppered with these sorts of comments:
‘Decisions relating to teachers’ professional development rightly rest with schools, head teachers, and teachers themselves, as they are in the best position to judge their own requirements — subject to the specific needs of their schools, staff and pupils.’
From a Government whose ambition is to see a rise in academies and free schools, it is unlikely that any substantial change in legislature on this issue will arise.
6) Changes under the May Government
Regardless of May’s overall ideological approach, this Government is committed to making some change to the system.
Firstly, in response to a Lords recommendation (12), the Government has announced it will introduce a Specialist Leader for Education position for citizenship.
Secondly, it outlines the fantastic work of the National Citizen Service (NCS) for young people. One of the Lords’ central criticisms of NCS was that it was viewed as a singular project for many participants, rather than a first step to more useful enterprises. The Government has prioritised the next steps of a young person’s NCS journey with an improved ‘Opportunity Hub’.
Thirdly, the Government has committed to ‘creating a democracy that works for everyone, including school and college students’. As part of this, it has stressed the importance of events like National Democracy Week and Suffrage Centenary Celebrations. It has also committed to including student electoral registration as part of the Higher Education regulatory framework, and is open to suggestions of extending this to further education and schools.
So, what exactly can we take from this paper?
The Government is aware of the benefits of citizenship and democratic education. That is abundantly clear and is stated numerous times throughout the paper. Small changes are being offered, such as the pushing of involvement in national campaigns, and minor alterations to education framework.
Regulations or changes to course-specific issues in the national curriculum, however, are firmly not this Government’s priority. It makes no excuses for its commitment to a freer education system — one that decentralises and devolves much of its control to institutions.
This free-market approach to education means those pining for a great overhaul of the curriculum will have to wait. Even after the Lords took them to task with recommendation 16, the May Government are determined to stand their ground.