Politicians’ rose-tinted views of citizenship education are bad for democracy

Politicians of all colours agree that citizenship education is an important part of the curriculum. So why are they so complacent about it vanishing from schools?

There is renewed interest among politicians for lowering the voting age to 16, and most advocates agree it must be coupled with rigorous citizenship education. In a House of Commons debate on Tuesday, speakers agreed that any lowering of the voting age must be supported by a strong element of citizenship education in schools.

But the current situation is not good enough, said Labour’s Sarah Champion. ‘When I asked young people in my constituency about citizenship education and what they had learned about politics as part of that, some of them in their final year of school replied that they had only three or four sessions in which they had talked about politics in the entirety of their secondary education. Is it any wonder that we are seeing a decline in voting, and that political apathy has become the norm?’

Her colleague, Andy Slaughter, agreed. ‘Citizenship education should sit at the core of our curriculum,’ he said.

However, Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake defended the status quo, arguing that his government’s new citizenship curriculum was already good enough. Not only will citizenship be retained in the national curriculum, he said, it ‘will be strengthened’.

That’s great to hear, but what on earth does it mean?

It’s a very curious statement for him to make, considering the new citizenship curriculum is much smaller and less defined than the previous government’s. And it receives none of the top-level endorsement so enjoyed by more ‘traditional’ curriculum subjects: no ministers have publicly championed their revised citizenship curriculum.

Meanwhile, no-one is scrutinising curriculum delivery anymore (Ofsted inspects the school, not the curriculum). So, with no pressure from outside, schools have little reason to treat citizenship seriously or to fear chastisement for sidelining it. Even in the secondary schools that have not opted out of the national curriculum by becoming academies, they are squeezing out some subjects in favour of others and citizenship is one of the victims. As a result, there is dwindling demand for citizenship teachers and fewer specialists are being trained.

How can anyone in government claim the subject is ‘being strengthened’?

Citizenship is still on the national curriculum, Michael Gove made sure of that. Education minister Elizabeth Truss frequently replies to parliamentary questions by referring to the citizenship curriculum. Together with support from Labour politicians and over-confident statements from LibDems like Tom Brake, there is clearly cross-party agreement that citizenship is a vital component of education in a modern democracy.

In which case, can we please see fewer rose-tinted views of the citizenship curriculum and instead see concrete plans and positive action to strengthen the subject on the ground in schools.

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

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