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 Eaton Excerpts
Monday 17th April 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Eaton Portrait Baroness Eaton (Con)
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My Lords, as a starting point, and on behalf of all those involved, I thank my noble friend Lord Hodgson for his diligence and determination in making sure that the findings of both the original and follow-up report are not rotting somewhere on a shelf, having died a death all that time ago. This is far too serious a subject to allow that to happen, and here we have a stalwart Member who has made sure that it has not happened in that way.

In a 21st-century country, a successful democratic nation will be one whose citizens feel secure, engaged and fulfilled, where everyone feels that they belong and can make a contribution. Those are not my words but were some of the opening comments in the first committee report from the Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement. I am sure that they are words that we all agree with. The report tried to identify barriers that prevent people contributing and feeling part of our society, and we also looked at actions that can be taken to remove those barriers. As my noble friend Lord Hodgson said, it was very disappointing that the Government appeared to take little action from the recommendations, although the pressures of events such as the Covid-19 pandemic have understandably received time-consuming focus.

There were many valuable suggestions in the original report which could have, and still can have, great value for the citizen experience. The follow-up report that we are discussing today focuses on three areas, which my noble friend Lord Hodgson has covered eloquently already. These three strands could be, and should be, supportive strands for the Government’s ambitions for levelling up.

Cross-government co-ordination is critical if policies on citizenship are to be in any way successful. The committee felt strongly that a Minister with responsibility for citizenship and civic engagement should be appointed in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities or the Cabinet Office. That Minister should have membership of the domestic and economic levelling-up committee. Unfortunately, that committee no longer exists. However, there are two committees entitled “Domestic and Economic Affairs”. One has the remit to consider matters relating to the economy and to Home Office matters. The second committee may consider matters relating to citizenship and civic engagement, and its remit is to consider matters relating to the union of the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State for DLUHC is a member of both.

Dr Mycock, reader at the Department of Behavioural and Social Sciences at Huddersfield University, told the committee that government departments have sought to better integrate citizenship and civic engagement into policy-making, but the overall picture is one where work across government still lacks coherence, co-ordination and connectivity.

The government White Paper on levelling up refers to civic institutions frequently throughout. Cross-government co-ordination and long-term planning are cited as critical aspects of the levelling-up strategy. I ask my noble friend the Minister what progress has been made in those recommendations and how those objectives have been fulfilled with the Cabinet committees. The Government’s response to the committee stated that they were reflecting on best practice for ways to deliver citizenship and civil engagement across government, and that their thinking would be shared with the committee. Like my noble friend Lord Hodgson, I have not become aware of any update. I ask my noble friend the Minister to tell us how well these reflections are proceeding.

The committee’s 2018 report found that the education system has a pivotal role in developing active citizens. Witnesses to the committee stated that citizenship education could lead to greater social cohesion, greater resilience and aspiration among young people. The committee made nine recommendations regarding the delivery, funding and assessment of citizenship education but, disappointingly, both the Government and Ofsted broadly rejected them.

As a result of the impact of Covid-19, the Government have made a commitment that they would not make any changes to the national curriculum for the remainder of this Parliament. In the education White Paper Opportunity for All, the Government said:

“We will build on our high-quality citizenship education by supporting the National Youth Guarantee, promoting volunteering and expanding access to the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Cadet Schemes”.

Interestingly, that was the only reference to citizenship in the White Paper. The national youth guarantee appears to deal with volunteering aspects of civic engagement, but could my noble friend the Minister give the Committee information to illustrate how well that is working out in practice? Also, could she please inform us how the core knowledge in citizenship education, such as how government works and how laws are made and upheld, is being delivered?

The national youth guarantee is designed so that young people in the most deprived areas have access to many new activities, social action projects and the National Citizen Service. Some £387 million has been allocated for the national youth guarantee. What proportion of funding is going to citizenship-related activities?

As we have heard, of major concern to the committee is the role of Ofsted in the citizenship agenda. It was alarming to find a general lack of knowledge and understanding about citizenship by inspectors, and to note the lack of seriousness that inspectors appeared to give the subject.

The committee came to the conclusion that Ofsted is misinterpreting the Government’s policy and assessment criteria for citizenship. Ofsted does not use quality of education when assessing citizenship education. Citizenship should not be conflated with PSHE. We heard the excellent and simple explanation that “PHSE is about me, and citizenship is about us”. In the Ofsted handbook and framework, it is clear that the framework is to look at the quality of education based on the national curriculum which clearly includes citizenship. This implies that the same rigour is not being applied to citizenship as to other curriculum subjects. The committee heard that, in many schools, citizenship is regarded as a low-status subject and in many cases is not taught at all. The Government should outline what steps they will take to ensure that citizenship education is not sidelined. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain why the Government support Ofsted’s practice of assessing citizenship with the incorrect metric.

Life in the United Kingdom has received much criticism over time. It has been described as inadequate for its intended purpose and simply a tick-box exercise. In reply to a Written Question in December 2022, it was stated that the Government intended to review the handbook in the first half of 2023. I was going to say that, surprisingly, nothing seems to have happened, but I can note that this morning I received an email, as I am sure other noble Lords did, inviting us to a briefing on the update to the Life in the UK policy. I am hoping it will be helpful to all of us. Can the Minister inform us of the progress being made on it?

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Baroness Eaton Portrait Baroness Eaton (Con)
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I am sorry, I think I may have imagined or misread an email from earlier in the day, so I am sorry if I have sent hares running. I apologise.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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Okay, I am not going to go chasing hares. We need a timetable for the start of this review and for its completion because it has been dragging on for so long, it is an embarrassment.

I was particularly taken by the description that said that the history section of the Life in the UK test is insensitive and embarrassing. It truly is. It is so full of subjective views of our history. As the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern said, all sorts of practical information that every individual might need to live life in this country is not there.

One other thing that nobody has yet talked about is the lack of availability of centres to take the test and the not inconsiderable cost of sitting the test. By the time you have bought the book and booked everything up it can be in excess of £300 to do this test on which your future rests.

All roads round, I think it is quite clear that the Government have for far too long just dragged their heels on this. I think it is an initiative that was started by a Labour Government. It was always going to be contentious but everybody accepts it could be an enormously valuable contribution to citizenship for communities. I do not know whether Members have gone along to a local citizenship ceremony but it is a lovely thing to watch communities celebrating and welcoming people to come and live.

I simply say to the noble Baroness, Lady Barran, that she is on a very unfortunate wicket this afternoon but I hope that she will not be, like a long line of her predecessors, somebody who bats us off with very little detail and no commitments because we do ourselves an injustice if we let this go any further.