David Blunkett interview: the government’s plan for citizenship education is ‘very bad news’

The UK government plans to reduce the importance of citizenship education in schools. On Tuesday I asked former Education Secretary David Blunkett about his concerns for a demoted citizenship curriculum.

What follows is a full transcript of the interview, accompanied by videos of each question.

Removing the national standards for teaching citizenship

Ten years ago – as Education Secretary – you succeeded in getting citizenship education onto the secondary curriculum as a statutory subject. The current government is proposing that there should no longer be a national standard for citizenship in schools. How do you feel about that?

“Well I’m both disappointed and extremely worried. Along with information technology and design & technology, the idea is that citizenship will float about somewhere within the school but will not only not be part of the core curriculum but will not have determined outcomes at national level.

“[It] will not have a national programme of study and therefore all that goes with it in terms of best practice.

“And of course a downgrading in relation to funding of teacher training.

“So the package that is on the table at the moment is really very bad news.”

Impact on democracy

Relegating the citizenship curriculum to the Basic Curriculum: what impact will that have on democracy?

“Well we knew, before I established the citizenship and democracy curriculum – after the working party chaired by Professor Sir Bernard Crick – that we had at that time, back in the ’80s and ’90s, the least politically literate electorate in he developed world. The work that was done at York University demonstrated that.

“The recent work from the National Foundation for Educational Research has demonstrated not only that the citizenship programmes already increase the awareness, the political understanding, but also the participation of young people; including in the 2010 election the 19 and 20 year-olds voted substantially more than the age group just above them.

“And I think that demonstrates that it’s already had an impact. But – crucially – that it’s also increased the active participation of youngsters in terms of volunteering; it’s had an impact on the quality of of outcomes in other study areas – in other words, the engagement of young people with the community and with an understanding of society around them – has actually had an impact on other subject areas.

“And it’s no good saying that, well, we can teach it through history or geography: subject teachers in those areas are specialists within their own field; what they don’t have – what many teachers never had – was an understanding of the political arena, the legal arena and the economic arena, or the ability to be able to teach it.

“And a combination of the withdrawal of the backup from national level of best practice – and of the kind of materials that make it possible to do the job well, and of outcome measures – would simply leave citizenship literally floating in the air.”

Teach all ages

We’re talking at the moment about the secondary curriculum. Would you go as far as to say actually it should be even earlier than that? I know the government maybe would say that the National Citizen Service would cover some of that, but would you that actually citizenship ought to be there right from the start?

“Well I think there are four steps. I think that at primary level youngsters really do need to understand what’s happening around them. They do need to start appreciating their role in the community; not heavily, not prescriptive, not actually boring tuition in a way that would turn them off, but just an understanding of how decisions are made: the interaction within their own family and the wider community, decisions in the school, responsibility, understanding of other people’s points of view; literally the way in which we learn to rub along together, to make decisions, to be appreciative that sometimes we have to give a little.

“And then move on to the secondary curriculum, where it’s really important that there is a proper programme of study, that there are powerful bodies of knowledge that we need to draw down on, that we do have social values that we need to transmit and to ensure that people understand together; because that develops a common identity, develops a common sense of belonging, and therefore it avoids the syndrome of people feeling alienated and separated out, which we saw regrettably in August 2011 in the disturbances.

“And then we move on to the National Citizen Service, where people get a taster of commitment and volunteering and work around them.

“And finally that we encourage young people to become volunteers at times in their life. I’m in favour of a full-time volunteer programme sometime between 16 and 25, where young people would have six to nine months of literally giving and receiving by being part of a volunteer programme, but above all that people learn that the more they participate – the more they give, the more they’re part of a vibrant democracy – the more they’ll get out of it and the more influence they’ll have over what’s happening to their lives.”

Delivery over structure?

Simon Hughes – Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats – told me, and I’ll quote this: “I’ve never thought the fact that something is compulsory as opposed to not compulsory, or dictated nationally as opposed to delivered locally, is the thing that makes the difference. It’s actually the delivery that matters more than the structure”. What would you say to that?

“I think it is the delivery that matters more than the structure, but if it’s not taught at all then there’s no delivery.

And we knew before 1998, when we embarked on this programme originally, that unless you actually said to schools ‘This is something on which you will be judged, this is something on which there will be defined outcome measures,’ they didn’t do it.

“A handful of schools in the state sector took it really seriously. Paradoxically, in the private sector they really did teach the young people – that they saw as the leaders “of the future – about politics, about the law, about economics; because they expected that not only would they participate but they would lead.

“I want leaders from my community; I want leaders from my schools; I want young people to believe that they will be Prime Minister; and despite what’s happened over the last two hundred years, and despite the efforts that, we put in to persuade people that teaching this openly and effectively and interestingly in schools, we’re still revolving back to a Cabinet dominated by people who went to public school.”

What should Labour do?

So then what should Labour do? When I spoke to Stephen Twigg he strongly supported citizenship education, but he did not go as far as saying that the government should keep its national statutory curriculum; that is, with a programme of study and assessment criteria. So what promises would you like to hear from the Shadow Education Secretary?

“Well I’d like an imaginative approach from the opposition, from my own party, which says: ‘Look, by 2014 the majority of secondary schools will be academies, the National Curriculum is therefore not directly applicable, we will have a silly situation where we pretend we have a national curriculum but we’ve effectively disemboweled it it and great parts of it will no longer be required and other parts will not be applicable to schools that have become Academies or Free Schools’.

“So what I’d like to see is that there is a requirement on schools – as there would be for English, maths, science, geography, history – to actually have a particular period in which they are expected to teach citizenship and that Ofsted would have an obligation to inspect. And a schools would find itself judged just as much by whether it’s teaching citizenship and whether it’s teaching it effectively as they would from those subject areas that Michael Gove is committed and minded to make part of the core curriculum.

“So we’d have a common-sense approach right across the board; there’s no point in having a core curriculum and a secondary curriculum if most of your schools don’t have to follow the curriculum. They’d certainly have to follow outcomes in terms of what was expected of them in terms of inspection and the way in which the school was judged, and there would be a national framework which schools could draw down on so that the most up-to-date materials and lesson plans could be shared so that teacher training was undertaken on an effective basis, rather than believing that somehow somewhere another subject teacher with a particular specialism can maybe for a small part of every week suddenly become the citizenship teacher: it just doesn’t work that way.

“And I am a trained teacher, I did a post-graduate certificate; as well as being Education Secretary I did teach: I understand very well what happens if you don’t require that there is at least some outcome measure and that outcome measure is measured.”

Can we expect that then? If the current government takes citizenship off the national curriculum, will the next Labour government put it back on?

“Well I shall press very hard that the next Labour government provides for citizenship teaching the same requirements that it provides for other key subject areas ranging from English and maths through science, geography and history.

“In other words: that there is an expected outcome, that there is a measurable progress that has to be made, that there is proper investment in training and that we do ensure that materials, lesson plans and the best that’s on offer is made available in a way that encourages schools to use it.”

See more views of the citizenship curriculum on YouTube, including MPs Stephen Twigg and Simon Hughes.
See more views of the citizenship curriculum on YouTube, including MPs Stephen Twigg and Simon Hughes.

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

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