Reflections on the Speaker’s Conference and why citizenship still needs support

I was pleased to see that the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation recommended in their final report (published on Monday) that in ‘England, the Department for Children Schools and Families should work with headteachers and with Ofsted to ensure that the importance of citizenship is better understood and the subject is taught with quality and appropriate breadth. In the devolved administrations, the equivalent authorities should consider a similar approach in the relevant curriculum areas’.

When we get the chance to talk about citizenship – as we did when the Citizenship Foundation gave evidence to the Speaker’s Conference in March of last year – we are able to make the case for it easily enough. As a prime example: I was worried that the members of the Speaker’s Conference hadn’t grasped the points we were trying to make about the importance of education for citizenship in the evidence session because they were so preoccupied with the issue of declining party membership (I wrote a blog post about it at the time, which you can read here), but there we are quoted extensively (along with the Association for Citizenship Teaching and other organisations who champion citizenship) in their report and with a friendly recommendation to boot.

I’d like to think that’s because citizenship education makes sense. Why wouldn’t we give young people access to education about politics, the law and economics (citizenship’s constituent parts)? How can we expect citizens to effectively engage with the political process without first making sure they have the skills to do so? If we don’t educate young people about the political, legal and economic institutions that govern our public life and how they, as individuals and in communities, can access and influence these institutions, what value are we – as a society – giving to our democratic life?

So why, when citizenship meets a crucial social need, are calls for greater support still necessary? The unfortunate fact is that citizenship is little supported and understood by many educators, politicians and the general public. As we explained in the evidence we gave to the Speaker’s Conference, there are many schools who take citizenship seriously and teach it with enthusiasm, to incredibly high standards. Unfortunately, there are more schools who either do citizenship just ‘by the book’ or hardly at all, with PE teachers and form tutors given responsibility for a subject that is complex and requires specialist training. And then there is the apparent lack of interest in, and/or understanding of, the subject coming from our elected representatives. The new Minister for Youth Engagement, Dawn Butler MP, is a fantastic advocate and, of course, now the Speaker’s Conference committee is on board, but generally we are disappointed with Parliamentarians’ support for Citizenship. What is needed are more trained teachers (one in every school, as the 2006-07 Education and Skills Committee called for) and political leadership (from any and all parties) that champions citizenship’s value.

I hope that the recommendation from the Speaker’s Conference gets taken up because, well, it’s common sense. But also because citizenship needs more commitment and investment and passion behind it in order for it to give Britain’s young people the preparation they need and deserve to become engaged, informed, critical and effective citizens.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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