Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts began last Monday’s debate by arguing, ‘civic engagement is the glue that binds us together’. So what is in this glue? Citizenship education, voting, political participation, charity work, contributing to the local community, activism, volunteering, accepting the rule of law. Lord Hodgson is right: this is what holds society together. And it all starts with education.
Lord Hodgson’s first point about Citizenship education was that ‘you don’t learn these things by magic’. Glaringly obvious, yes, but a point often missed. The only way children and young adults are going to learn about politics is through the education system. For most parents, it simply will not cross their mind to explain to their child the difference between Parliament and the Government, or the importance of voting and petitioning. Possibly because they haven’t benefited from Citizenship education.
This article is a case in point. Had I not chosen to study A-Level Politics, I wouldn’t have been able to write this. I wouldn’t have a clue about the role of the House of Lords, the key features of democracy or what a Select Committee is.
What this debate revealed was that this change has to come from the top. Sadly, we cannot rely on local authorities to force schools to comply with national guidelines. At present, Citizenship education is an NC foundation subject with a statutory legal status, yet it is absent from many schools’ curricula. The mechanisms are simply not in place to enforce it.
As Lord Hodgson put it, ‘schools regard Citizenship education as a “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have” ‘ — rather like Drama or Dance, which seems absurd given the absolute criticality of a basic understanding of politics to inform us when we vote or sign a petition.
Lord Blunkett, a well-known political campaigner, highlighted the democratic deficit as a key reason why the Government need to put more effort into improving civic engagement and Citizenship education. ‘Our democracy is in deep distress’, he told the Chamber. There is a distinct lack of political engagement among the younger generation, reflected in lower turnout during elections.
Apathy among one particular demographic — such as young people — serves to augment the power of the state, because democratic accountability is compromised. This is reflected in the nature of the Tory campaigns; more often than not, they are blatantly directed at the older generation. And the sole reason for this is because they vote.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire claimed we have ‘the most centralised system of Government of any Western country’ and described the Government as ‘distant and remote’. The chief reason for this is the distinct lack of civic engagement, particularly at a local level. Lord Wallace referred to the existence of a ‘contract’ between the localities and the central Government. Its foundation is active citizenship, and in the absence of this, it is no wonder we are facing something of a democratic crisis.
As Lord Blunkett wryly pointed out, ideologically, the Conservatives should recognise what a powerful antidote civil society is to the power of the state. But instead, they are showing sheer complacency about the issue of Citizenship education. And perhaps this is because they realise the threat which increased young voter turnout would pose to their majority.
Citizenship is vital to maintaining not only political accountability but also social cohesion. Baroness Stowell said that promoting civic engagement is crucial to ensure ‘people from all walks of life can get to grips with their rights and responsibilities’. There is a ‘public yearning’ for a common set of standards in society and the promotion of civic engagement, particularly on a community level, will help to achieve this.
Baroness Newlove then brought the debate back to education. She argued that Citizenship should be on a par with core subjects such as Maths, English and History. The Government should be taking an active role in outlining the curriculum, not leaving it up to schools.
On the surface, the Government can probably claim they have taken action and responded to the Select Committee report. They have produced an official response to the report which states that the Government is now committed to introducing Specialist Leaders of Education for Citizenship.
However, they have done nothing to set this in motion or oblige schools to apply for it. It is still up to schools to take action themselves, and as it stands, they simply don’t — because they don’t have the funding, the space on the curriculum nor the resources to properly train teachers in Citizenship education. Depressingly, this is one of the few subjects which does not receive funding for the training of prospective teachers.
When questioned why they don’t vote or take part in other forms of political participation, many young people will claim it is because they are not well-informed enough, or because they struggle to engage with the politicians standing for election. And who can blame them, really?
There is surely no doubt that Citizenship education is the solution, or at the very least a first step. Education is one of the few ways to ensure young people are fairly and neutrally informed on political issues. And it is the responsibility of the state to set this in motion.