Stephen Lambert, Director of Education4Democracy.


Today (16 Aug), 1,000 students received their A-level Citizenship results for the last time. The Government has scrapped the subject despite over 2,000 exam entries in 2016. 300 odd students sat the subject at Darlington’s QE Sixth Form College alone. Sadly, citizenship education has almost vanished from secondary schools despite it being a mandatory subject for youngsters up to the age of 16. GCSE exam entries for the subject have plummeted.

Nothing could be more foolish or short-sighted when policy experts like Lord Blunkett are telling us that as a nation we’re experiencing a ‘crisis of democratic engagement’ with fewer people turning out to vote in elections or joining voluntary groups. As the American academic Robert Puttman noted in his classic book, ‘Bowling Alone’, the demise of ‘social capital’ has contributed to low levels of civic participation. People are more likely to watch the sitcom ‘Friends’ than make them and view Neighbours rather than talk to them!

As April's House of Lords report ‘The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century’ makes clear - rather than deleting Citizenship at AS or A-level, the subject should be made compulsory up to the age of 19. Every school and college should have a trained citizenship teacher. Restoring the subject would be welcomed by all those who want to see a politically educated electorate in the second decade of the 21st century.

Last September the Government placed a statutory obligation on all schools and colleges (through its ‘British Values’ programme) to be pro-active in confronting ‘extremism’ as part of its wider anti-terrorism strategy. This means teachers being on the lookout for signs of potential indoctrination into extremist ideologies. But there’s an alternative to the State’s narrow and possibly stigmatising approach.

Let’s widen space in the national curriculum in the form of citizenship lessons learning about democracy, democratic processes, rights, responsibilities and justice, and developing all students’ skills sets. This alternative is based on education and intellectual enquiry, not just surveillance – important as it is.

For democracy to be real, people need skills , knowledge, confidence and contacts. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, called politics the ‘’master science’’ – its purpose being the common good of humanity.

One major feature of citizenship education is a grasp of political, legal, economic, cultural and economic values, processes and institutions. Politics is about power in our community. Who holds it? How did they get it and how does the mass of the population access it. It affects every part of our lives. Decisions not only have to be taken in national, European, regional and local settings, but also in day-to-day interactions with others.

To take part within the various decision-making processes, it’s vital adults are suitably equipped with the relevant civic knowledge and skills. The last forty years have seen the development of society with the result of more centralised decision-making in the wider context of globalisation. Concentration of power in the hands of an ‘Establishment’ or ‘Ruling-Class’ as noted by the writer Owen Jones has reduced the ability of citizens to actively influence decision-making, let alone make sense of it.

Alarmingly in the last decade a sizeable chunk of the populace feel ‘’disconnected’’ from the civil process. Figures show that 95% of the nation’s 19,000 elected politicians were voted in on turn-outs of less than 50%. There’s a class divide too. People in prosperous areas are more likely to vote than those in poor areas. In Newcastle turn-out in the 2017 general election was 56%. In affluent Hexham it was 78%! In the 2016 EU referendum, 13 million people didn’t vote – mostly young adults aged 18 to 24. On top of that, voters with physical, learning and mental disabilities or those with visual impairments are locked out of the electoral system. 5m citizens are not even registered despite all out local and Mayoral elections this year and next.

The reasons behind this are problematic. Lack of knowledge about current issues, and peoples’ own role in facilitating change are clearly factors in accounting for this disillusionment or alienation. A revived citizenship programme in our schools can help create an active, informed, engaged and empowered electorate.

Civic education can provide an awareness and understanding of the ‘rights and responsibilities’ of UK citizens. It’s important that young people by the age of 19 know how the House of Commons works, what an MP or local councillor does and how the legal system and business operates.

Furthermore, they need to be encouraged to volunteer in a local charity, such as Oxfam or Cancer research. Volunteering today has become the preserve of the elderly. Classes in citizenship can help combat voter apathy, low levels of political participation and create a mature electorate.

In what has become known as a ‘Post-Truth’ social media age where people are swayed by emotions rather than reason, the need for citizenship classes across the curriculum could not be greater for a democratic system fit for the second decade of the 21st century.

Stephen Lambert, Director, Education4Democracy CIC

Copyright © 2018 FE News

About Stephen Lambert: He is a a semi-retired lecturer who taught Citizenship at Bishop Auckland and Newcastle College.

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