What do the party manifestos mean for citizenship education?

Six of the seven main parties have released their general election manifestos (the SNP are yet to publish theirs). Of course, the first question on everyone’s lips is (in our little world, anyway), ‘what do they say about citizenship education?’ Well, not a lot.

'Polling station - way in'

Polling station (way in) by Paul Albertella

Politicians constantly bemoan the public’s lack of enthusiasm for formal politics, so you’d think they’d be bending over backwards to pledge strong citizenship education that tackles apathy and alienation.

You’d think. But no. Labour is the only party that puts any real emphasis on it.

Labour, uniquely, pledges explicitly to support democracy with education:

‘We will give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote by May 2016, and improve the curriculum for citizenship education, so young people have the knowledge they need to play a full part in British society‘ [my emphasis].

And they’ve kept this separate from personal, social, health and character education, which are addressed elsewhere in the document.

In fact, the whole manifesto for education feels strong on preparation for democratic life – a stark contrast to the Conservatives’, which makes no mention of it at all.

The Conservatives are hot on measuring achievement against specific benchmarks – more tests, tougher standards – and seem a little obsessed with STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Their manifesto makes no mention of citizenship education whatsoever. Neither does it mention any of its components, such as learning about democracy; there isn’t even a nod of recognition toward the importance of preparing future citizens. To the Tories, it seems education is all about nurturing future money-makers.

The public is encouraged to hold a Conservative Government to account – the Tories promise, once again, to make Government more transparent in order for us to do so – but whether they listen is up to them. After all, they’re the experts and they’re not planning on training up any more.

Interestingly, the Conservatives have kept references to ‘British values’ well away from education. This is a little surprising, maybe, coming from the party whose education ministers were so quick to set in statute that schools must promote British values (see Ofsted SMSC guidance November 2014).

Big Society, on the other hand, is back with a vengeance. Reminding us to muck in to keep society ticking over. Apparently, being a good citizen is simply about helping others, rather than also engaging with decision-making.

Their flagship (and very expensive) National Citizen Service (NCS) will be expanded to help promote that. In fact, it’s proving so successful that, according to some creative mathematics, ‘a generation of teenagers has undertaken National Citizen Service’.

That’s a bold claim, and sadly one that doesn’t bear much scrutiny: there have been around three million teenagers (13-19 year olds) in Britain under the current Government* and 130,000 were involved in NCS** since it started in 2009. Does 130,000 as a percentage of three million sound like a generation’s worth of teenagers? You do the maths (ok, it’s 4.3%). And let’s hope the same people aren’t in charge of the economy … oh.

The Liberal Democrats, to their credit, do protect citizenship education in their manifesto – but, confusingly, in a way that appears to blur it with PSHE**:

‘A slimmed down core national curriculum … will include Personal, Social and Health Education: a ‘curriculum for life’ including financial literacy, first aid and emergency lifesaving skills, citizenship, and age-appropriate sex and relationship education’.

We have had assurances that the two are not being conflated, but we will try to find out more. Because, if that colon is correct, then PSHE – currently a non-statutory subject – becomes the umbrella for citizenship – currently a statutory subject (and a broad one) – and other, more specific life-skills. That carries huge implications for schools and teachers.

This confusion is unfortunate, because one would hope the Liberal Democrats – with a manifesto chock-full of radical political change, including a lower voting age – would be more robust in their pledge to educate the citizens that will be caught in the wake of their widespread reform agenda.

Particularly as they also promise this:

‘To lead a fulfilled life, people need power over more than just their government. Liberal Democrats will spread democracy in everyday life by encouraging mutuals, cooperatives, and employee participation and by increasing the opportunities for people to take democratic control over the services on which they rely. We will encourage citizens to engage in practical social action, seeing government as an enabler and facilitator rather than just a commissioner and provider of services’ [my emphasis].

But at least citizenship education is acknowledged explicitly in their manifesto.

The Green Party, on the other hand, doesn’t mention citizenship education in its manifesto, though it does pledge compulsory PSHE.

It also pledges to put academies and free schools under local authority control, which could have interesting implications for citizenship, a curriculum subject that has struggled to be taken seriously by national Government in recent years.

And so to Ukip. Ah, Ukip: the party that feels the need to add ‘regardless of background, gender, race, wealth or class’ after the sentence ‘UKIP’s vision for British education is of a world-renowned system; a system designed to allow young people to perform to the best of their ability’.

Unsurprisingly, Ukip wants to uphold ‘British values’ (whatever they may be, they’re not really defined), but its education manifesto is pretty innocuous and contains similar rhetoric to the other parties (quality education for all, skilled teachers, etc etc).

They will ‘continue to monitor British values,’ but with the caveat that it will be ‘with a view towards combatting extremism and radicalisation, rather than criticising widely-held Judeo-Christian beliefs’ (which could sound like an admission of guilt as much as a promise not to discriminate, but who am I to judge).

They will support new free schools if they uphold British values, again carefully adding ‘provided they are open to the whole local community … and do not discriminate against any section of society’.

And no, the Ukip manifesto doesn’t mention citizenship education. But it does make an odd reference to PSHE: it pledges to ‘make First Aid training a statutory part of PSHE in the national curriculum’. This is a strange idea because PSHE itself is currently non-statutory.

The election is so close to call and the manifestos so varied that it’s hard to guess what most parties have in store for citizenship education after 7 May.

To be honest, it’s mostly a question of ‘wait and see’. There is so much political upheaval in these manifestos – not to mention the havoc that may ensue after voting closes on 7 May – that whoever does get into power may not be able to avoid the issue of preparing their citizens for democracy.

* Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/education-and-training-statistics-for-the-uk-2014
** http://www.ncsthechallenge.org/about-the-programme
*** PSHE is often understood as ‘Personal, Social and Health Education’, although it is defined by the UK Government as ‘Personal, Social, Health and Economic education’. However, the PSHE Association’s website does not attempt to expand the abbreviation and refers simply to ‘PSHE’ throughout.

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

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