Citizenship education: by Andy Thornton

Students receiving help from their class teacher

By Andy Thornton, Chief Executive, Citizenship Foundation

In 2002 the Labour government introduced a brand new, mandatory subject into the national curriculum: citizenship.

Eight years into its implementation (not a long time for our school system) the coalition was rumoured to want it out again.

Thankfully at its inception the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) were employed to track its impact through the years. Their research would become critical to the case for retaining the subject as the recurring question “but has it worked?” filled the air.

In February 2012 a new report Citizens in Transition in England: The Longitudinal Cohort at age 19-20  took the research beyond the life of the school and looked at voting patterns of those who would have had secondary citizenship education for five years. In practice, it didn’t happen like that, and the results could never have been as definitive as the designers envisaged because schools simply didn’t implement it so quickly or universally.

To us at the Citizenship Foundation this research has been vital.

Firstly it showed us the trends in implementation of the subject. We discovered that the compulsory order might have looked clear when the Department of Education handed it down, but schools went at their own pace. Teachers had to be trained, specialists even, in a subject that had previously received guidance as non-mandatory, but where few had developed effective techniques for tackling such a ‘live’ subject. That all took years.

Secondly the research had to pre-empt what “but has it worked?” might mean to future generations. To the politicians of 2010, for instance. Many of them had never taken the subject at school. Would they understand the belief – held by those who pushed through the change – that every member of a democracy was entitled to be taught how to use their received rights and comprehend their obligations?

What would a future generation of politicians mean by ‘working?’ They might mean ‘creating patriots’, or ‘improving civility’ or ‘increasing voter turnout’. They might not even disclose, as was the case, what ‘working’ could possibly mean, as they were reforming from other principles. In this case ‘unclogging’ the curriculum mattered highly and the last-man-in was most likely to be first-man-out.

So, ten years on the research told a story which was tenable to educationalists but still quite nuanced for politicians seeking a stronger mandate.

It taught us that the subject has to be delivered well to have impact. That sounds obvious, but we all remember at least one lesson at school that was a bit of a doss. It was RE when I was young, as we didn’t get exams in it. Then it became modern studies, or Personal, Health and Social Education, and then – the last man in – ‘Citizenship’.

The findings indicated that ‘well’ means the school has at least one specialist teacher, sets aside a minimum of one 45 minute subject slot a week, assesses its impact and, if possible, enters students for the GCSE.

In some settings it was hard to trace the impact. But it gave us some pretty firm indicators of what ‘impact’ was, though. From lower-level engagement, such as taking part in informal political discussion, through to first time voting, the assessment was thorough and the cohort huge. The only thing it didn’t and couldn’t do was match those polled to the quality of teaching that they had received (given that it had been so patchy).

This was ultimately a fairly critical measurement if we wanted to convert the cynics. Similarly, the self-reported percentage who had voted was around 20 percent higher than the official returns from the Electoral Commission. But theirs were absolute figures, not self-reported, so there was nothing so hard and fast for the sceptical.

But what could we point to?

  • This age group has low levels of civic engagement across a number of measures. Less than 20 per cent thought voting was a civic duty, but 68 per cent said they had voted in a recent election – more than twice the number who had voted in a reality TV show.
  • Young people’s early political perspectives appear to begin to be reassessed around the age of 14, which may be a pivotal age for educational input.
  • Those who remembered receiving more Citizenship Education indicated a noticeably higher level of political understanding but a similar disillusion with all parties’ election campaigns in the 2010 elections – and a low level of trust for politicians.
  • Young people in this age group could be categorised through five levels of political engagement: from disinterested to highly engaged. The survey showed the relative effects of family background, level of education and ongoing experience on these, indicating if anything that citizenship education alone had done nothing discernible as yet to shake up historic trends.

When the subject was launched in 2001 its architect, Professor Bernard Crick, supported it with a visionary intent:

“We aim at no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally: for people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life and with the critical capacities to weigh evidence before speaking and acting.”

The research gave us some indications that the subject was ‘working’ in those terms. But almost as critically, it told us what was standing in its way. It suggested that the current curriculum review needs to get serious about the subject, and why. The drop-off in political backing for the subject did little to cement its impact in the later years of Labour.

At a time when the Secretary of State for Education is implementing sweeping ideological reforms, it critically helped us to show what is possible and to communicate what ‘serious’ means.

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