The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century Follow-Up Report Debate

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Department: Department for Education

The Ties that Bind: Citizenship and Civic Engagement in the 21st Century Follow-Up Report

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Monday 17th April 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts for securing this debate and for his skilful chairmanship of the committee and all noble Lords who contributed to the report and who have spoken today.

The Government agree with the committee that citizenship education and civic engagement opportunities are essential parts of a well-functioning democratic society. My noble friend focused in particular on curriculum and teaching and the Government’s role in that and in relation to Ofsted. I agree with other noble Lords that those things are fundamental but need to be linked to opportunities for young people to explore citizenship in practice or in real life. In terms of our approach, linking those two things is the golden thread that runs through the Government’s policy.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, questioned the absence of a dedicated Minister. That might be worthy of debate in its own right. As your Lordships know, the Government currently do not have plans to appoint a Minister in this area. Responsibility for chairing the Inter-Ministerial Group on Levelling Up sits clearly with the Secretary of State in DLUHC, and that group oversees delivery across the 12 levelling-up missions, with a real focus on empowering local leaders. A number of your Lordships raised the importance of this being owned locally. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, for reminding the House about the different “capitals”, in particular the social capital pillar, with its focus on the strengths of communities, relationships and trust.

We believe that key to achieving this is that empowerment of local communities, which is why there has been such a focus on devolution. Not only do we have an interministerial group but we also have an independent advisory council, advising the Government on their approach to place-based policy, including the role of local communities and social infrastructure in levelling up.

On education specifically, as your Lordships have put more eloquently than I can, a high-quality citizenship curriculum gives extraordinary opportunities for pupils to understand their place in the world, in their local communities, in their country and globally. Citizenship is an important national curriculum subject at key stages 3 and 4, and all schools are encouraged to teach it as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, was not the only person who painted a bleak picture of the state of citizenship education. I will shed a little light on that bleakness. We saw a 5.9% increase in the number of GCSE candidates taking citizenship studies in the summer of 2022, compared to 2021. That was up 19.5% from 2018, to just under 21,500 students. On teacher numbers, my noble friend Lady Eaton—forgive me if it was another noble Lord—suggested that teacher numbers had halved. Actually, since 2018, teacher numbers have declined slightly, but from 4,451 to 4,152 in 2022—not the dramatic decline that was suggested.

We also now have the Oak National Academy, which became an arm’s-length body in September 2022 and provides adaptable and optional support for schools. New curriculum packages are being developed, including in relation to citizenship, so that every school can be confident that there is a high-quality and well-sequenced curriculum that it can follow if it wishes.

Your Lordships also made a number of recommendations on the inspection of citizenship teaching. The department expects citizenship to be considered a significant part of Ofsted’s routine inspections. In contrast to your Lordships’ remarks this evening, we are satisfied that the current approach achieves this in a proportionate way. Ofsted has confirmed that evidence on citizenship is considered in every inspection, including the extent to which schools are preparing pupils for life in modern Britain effectively, through relationship education, citizenship and the promotion of fundamental British values.

My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth asked what action is being taken to make sure that there is compliance with the committee’s recommendations. Of course, Ofsted is an independent arm’s-length body of the Government, but I am happy to ask His Majesty’s chief inspector to respond to your Lordships’ various suggestions and reflections on citizenship not being properly understood within the curriculum or adequately covered within Ofsted inspections.

In response to my noble friend Lady Eaton and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about the approach that Ofsted uses, I think it would be unfair to suggest that Ofsted does not have high expectations for citizenship in schools. As with other subjects, Ofsted expects the curriculum to be structured to enable pupils to build knowledge through clear sequences of lessons and any other activities that schools may organise.

I turn now to teaching. The report, as your Lordships reminded us, made recommendations relating to investment in the school workforce. Obviously, the Government are very focused on recruitment and retention of all teachers, including in relation to citizenship, and recruitment to citizenship initial teacher training courses is unrestricted for providers. Citizenship teachers are of course eligible for tuition fee and maintenance loans, but we have focused on particular shortage subjects in relation to bursaries.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, talked about the amendment he put down to the Schools Bill, and a number of the elements he set out clearly in that amendment are explicitly covered in the citizenship curriculum. More broadly, your Lordships will be aware that the department published its sustainability and climate change strategy, which was developed together with young people. That really sets out how seriously we take climate change and the environment, which is an important part of the sense of being a citizen for many young people, within the department. As part of that, we have announced a national education nature park and climate action awards scheme, which will give educational opportunities for young people to take part in citizen science as well as a number of other activities.

On the National Citizen Service, as I said in my opening remarks, our vision as a Government is not only that young people have opportunities to learn about citizenship and gain the knowledge that they need in order to be responsible and active citizens but that they are given opportunities to, if you like, do citizenship and participate. That is why the new National Citizen Service is investing more than £20 million over two years in community experiences with a real focus on social action, volunteering and civic participation.

I was quite surprised at the tone of the remarks from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, because the National Citizen Service has evolved its delivery model, partly in response to your Lordships’ recommendations. I thought it might have got a green tick for its response. First, there is a much greater focus on partnership—working with the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector—as well as much greater engagement with schools through the skills booster programme, which the noble Baroness referred to. That programme has now been accessed by about 7,000 schools—about a third of the schools in this country—which is major progress from the figures the noble Baroness mentioned.

Officials within DCMS and the Department for Education are continuing to explore opportunities to improve access to active citizenship, including through promoting the NCS. Over 100,000 young people took part in NCS experiences in 2022, with the new, reformed programme starting this year. The new programme is open to all 16 and 17 year-olds, with support available for the most disadvantaged.

My noble friend Lady Eaton and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about the impact of NCS. The independent research undertaken by the Behavioural Insights Team showed that completing the National Citizen Service programme leads to a 12% increase in participation in politics, so, if that were to be modelled across all 16 to 25 year-olds, they would be the second-highest participating age group, as opposed to the second-lowest, which is where they are today. Research by Kantar also showed that the NCS statistically increases levels of social trust, which your Lordships, including the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, rightly highlighted as a matter of importance.

We are making excellent progress against the national youth guarantee commitments, which my noble friend Lady Redfern asked about. Since September 2021, government funding supported over 11,500 more young people to take part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in school. Some 2,000 more places have been created for uniformed youth groups in cold spots since September 2022, and £90 million of the £300 million youth investment fund has been allocated to 43 organisations to rebuild and renovate youth centres in some of the country’s most disadvantaged areas. The new NCS programme has, in effect, double the investment in 53 priority areas, providing the same focus on those areas that need support most.

The noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, mentioned Community Action Suffolk. I remember my very happy visit with her to Community Action Suffolk to see its great work. However, we know that volunteering more broadly is one of the top three priority activities identified by over 6,000 young people in the 2021 Youth Review. The National Youth Social Action Survey 2019 found that young people were eager to make a difference, with 88% saying that they

“cared about making the world a better place”.

Last year, 434,492 votes were cast by young people engaged in the UK Youth Parliament’s Make Your Mark campaign, which was up 18.5% from 2020. The national youth guarantee is supporting local youth volunteering opportunities via the #iwill fund, through which it is projected that over 695,000 youth social action opportunities will be created by March 2027.

My noble friend Lady Eaton asked about the percentage of the funding in the national youth guarantee that goes specifically towards citizenship. It is genuinely quite difficult to separate that out, because, as the report described, there is a civic journey, and the plan with the national youth guarantee is to encourage young people along that journey.

On the Home Office’s Life in the UK Test, your Lordships’ report recommended that the Government set up an advisory group with a diverse and expert membership to review the test within 12 months. The Government are clear that the Home Office will need to engage a range of experts and stakeholders when undertaking the review, but at this stage they cannot commit to setting up such an advisory group. My noble friend Lord Hodgson and others asked about the timing of when the plans will be published to update the Life in the UK handbook, and I can confirm that that will happen in the second half of this year. In response to the critique of the test from the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I say that 91% of candidates who took the test in the last 12 months said that they were either “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with the service they received.

What I heard from your Lordships this evening was very critical of the Government in our response to specific recommendations in your Lordships’ reports. Your Lordships expressed a real concern that there needs to be a coherence and a focus on how the Government are tackling the important issue of citizenship. As I have acknowledged in my speech, there are absolutely areas where the Government have not adopted the recommendations made in your Lordships’ reports, but I hope that your Lordships will also acknowledge that, while we may not approach it in exactly the way they have recommended, there is a coherence to what we are doing to try to bring together that knowledge of the curriculum, the rigour of inspection and the practical experiences that we offer young people.

We know that we need to offer young people a range and a choice of activities and focus on those which we know, from evidence, make the most difference to civic participation. Of course, that includes volunteering and activities that, by design, bring young people from different communities together, as well, of course, as giving young people the knowledge and the confidence to think independently, to think critically, and to be responsible citizens. I genuinely thank all noble Lords for their engagement on these incredibly important topics. My noble friend talked about tying the pink ribbon around the report. I reassure the Committee that we are not tying any pink ribbon yet around our work in this area: we will continue to strive to deliver on the aspiration of your Lordships’ reports.