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If democratic citizenship is a universal right, how can we so neglect citizenship education?

Democracy can only work if students realise the importance of active citizenship, but citizenship education has lost its way under David Cameron’s government. Number 10/flickr, CC BY-ND

If democratic citizenship is a universal right, how can we so neglect citizenship education?

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


If the notion of democratic citizenship is universal, then citizenship education, as a prerequisite of both political equality and democratic sustainability, should be a universal right.

In the “mother” of all democracies, the ancient Athenian realm of Solon, direct democracy gave all citizens (admittedly men over 20) the right to be heard as equals in the agora. As an ambitious polis, Athens saw its democracy best served by an educated citizenry, so it trained children from the age of seven to amplify their national endowment.

Today, while direct democracy may be the nostalgic dream of academics, some of the basic premises behind civic education remain. Even in our modern representative democracy, citizens need a basic understanding of how political processes function and affect them. They need this knowledge to critique democracy and correct its malfunctions, and to face outwards into society with a truly participatory mindset.

Modern democracy faces threats on all sides. It is being pulled to its knees by growing distrust, underhand corruption and trenchant cynicism, not to mention the general non-involvement, individualism and hedonism of society stemming from democracy’s inability to control the forces of capitalism.

In 2002, the then-Labour government introduced citizenship as a statutory subject in the UK. It had the right intentions but scattered success. The political narrative of the last six years has led to the original impetus being lost and the wheels of progress reversed.

David Blunkett, the minister who helped usher in citizenship education, discusses its importance for democracy.

Now, converging social and political forces threaten to tear democracy apart. There has never been a better time to take stock of what has gone wrong and re-evaluate citizenship education, mindful of those values that animated our political ancestors in the Greek agora.

The political state of play

The UK was the last state in Europe, the US and the old Commonwealth to introduce citizenship as a statutory subject in compulsory education. There was a naive belief that it wasn’t needed. The established political class (particularly Thatcher’s Conservative government) was also nervous about the hierarchical implications for UK governance of a new citizen culture.

Only with the vision of Sir Bernard Crick and his colleagues at the Politics Association was citizenship finally given the attention it deserved. In their 1998 keynote report, Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, Crick’s advisory committee was unanimous in their purpose:

We aim at no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally; for people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life and with the critical capacities to weigh evidence before speaking and acting.

This would later be known as the “noble paragraph” and a noble message it certainly conveyed.

Citizenship entered the curriculum with great force, but sceptics remained and cynics grew in number. So, unfortunately, the subject stumbled into its second decade as a victim of Coalition and Conservative education policy.

What are the main problems?

In my opinion, four key diagnoses demand a response.

1) The problem of definition and delivery

As Crick acknowledged in 2002:

No other national curriculum subject was stated so briefly, left so much to individual teachers in different schools in different circumstances.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority took a light-touch approach. It assumed that, without any training, teachers would be able to figure out an effective method of putting principles into practice alongside their already onerous workloads.

Although citizenship is a statutory foundation subject and a Progress 8 indicator (by which schools can be measured), it remains marginalised. School leadership teams are sceptical about giving it proportional attention alongside the core examinable subjects that traditionally carry weight in league tables.

2) A subject without specialists

Citizenship is a rare teaching specialisation. Only 190 newly qualified teachers practised the subject in 2006. In 2010, only 220 citizenship teacher-training places were available.

Even if the initial rate of training was maintained, it would take another two decades for the 3,360 maintained secondary schools to have one trained citizenship teacher each.

Non-specialists, with no formal training and a plethora of competing obligations, must deliver citizenship education.

3) A confused purpose

Where citizenship has been given proper discrete attention, pupils have been encouraged to enter the local community in the spirit of active citizenship.

In his study of 18- to 26-year-olds in 2011, Paul Whiteley found that, controlling for other variables, participants who had received “consistent” exposure to citizenship education had a greater sense of political efficacy, increased political participation and more political knowledge than those who had received little or no exposure.

The positive potential of citizenship education is well documented globally. But, in the UK, the test-oriented school system engenders a short-term focus on the “next qualification” and the safety of traditionalism, where good citizenship is based on lawful obedience.

This is far away from progressivism and the notion of active citizenship, where pupils feel empowered to make change happen where it is needed and resist change where it is not.

4) Post-16 reforms

There is no longer an explicit national endorsement of the value of citizenship in the post-GCSE sector. Spending cuts have affected the extra-curricular efforts of colleges and sixth forms. The 75% cut to entitlement funding and the end of the Post-16 Citizenship Support Program have gradually demolished the capacity of many schools and colleges to sustain active citizenship education for their post-16 cohorts.

Recent announcements to make the National Citizen Service a statutory body miss the point. Citizenship cannot be effectively tagged onto mainstream education.

Democratic future depends on reform

Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the social conditions have to be right for change. Even then the right change might not come about without the deliberate actions of individuals.

Today the UK is experiencing a crisis of citizenship. Threats of radicalisation, community paranoia, protests, rioting and dissected communities all undermine our democracy as much as our apathy towards formal channels of participation.

The spiritual, moral, social and cultural learning touted by UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan is not the same as citizenship education. Reuters

So the social conditions are certainly ripe for change, and UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and her associates must recognise the right course before they embark too far along the wrong one.

The Department for Education announced in November 2014 that spiritual, moral, social and cultural learning (SMSC) would become the primary vehicle through which teachers should consistently promote civic British values in their daily lessons.

So what exactly did the government mean by British values? The department defines these nebulous flags of nationalised integrity as:

… democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Does this sound like the basis of citizenship education? Possibly, but with a big caveat. The government’s message is one of teachers “promoting these fundamental British values” and of young people “accepting”, “respecting” and “tolerating”.

The implication is that everybody already agrees the content and character of those values; acknowledges that they are individual to Britain; and will have no problem unquestionably adhering to them.

This is not, in my view, the purpose of education; it should never be the purpose of education for democracy and political equality.

If Morgan et al are going to contribute to the future viability of democracy and the ideal of political equality, then they must return to the concept of citizenship education and get it right. The principles of learning for democracy and free citizenship for all need to be implanted in our children’s education.

That is why the Crick Centre, an academic research unit set up in memory of Bernard Crick, will be training teachers in strategies for doing citizenship properly.

Democracy can only work when the public are provided with the necessary conditions to understand political systems, appreciate the inter-relationship between responsibility and liberty, engage in mutual discussion and debate, and realise the importance of both good and active citizenship. The key, as ever and always, lies in education.