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

Lord Norton of Louth Excerpts
Monday 17th April 2023

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Norton of Louth Portrait Lord Norton of Louth (Con)
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My Lords, I join others in commending my noble friend Lord Hodgson on introducing this important debate. I also commend the Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, which he chaired, for producing the report, and the Liaison Committee for its follow-up report. I agree very much with the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, about the role of the Liaison Committee in producing such reports. They are an invaluable exercise.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, I will focus on the recommendations of the Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement on citizenship education. In chapter 3, it makes a compelling case for citizenship education and for greater resources to be devoted to ensuring its delivery. It produced several valuable recommendations, but nothing has happened. I quote from paragraph 162 of the report:

“The Government has allowed citizenship education in England to degrade to a parlous state. The decline of the subject must be addressed in its totality as a matter of urgency”.

Here we are, almost five years to the day since the report was published, and the situation, if anything, is more parlous. The Liaison Committee pursued recommendations made by the committee, but they have fallen on barren ground. The problem is not just one of government but, as has been reiterated this afternoon, of the inspection regime. As the committee made clear, Ofsted’s approach is inadequate and fails to understand the distinct significance of citizenship education. The committee argued the case for Ofsted to stop assessing citizenship education through personal development and for it instead to form part of the quality of education. This was taken up by the Liaison Committee which, at paragraph 72, addressed

“Ofsted’s disregard for citizenship as a statutory curriculum subject and its insistence on assessing it through personal development”.

It continued:

“Citizenship is an academic subject and when taught properly should involve the development of knowledge, skills and understanding that pupils need to become active and responsible citizens. Citizenship should not be treated solely as part of pupils’ personal development. To do so is to misunderstand the nature of the subject in its entirety”.

In the next paragraph, the committee goes on to state that, based on the evidence it had received,

“Ofsted is misinterpreting the Government’s policy and assessment criteria for Citizenship”.

Among its other recommendations, it says at paragraph 77 that:

“Ofsted should review the support and training given to their inspectors and should ensure that the inspectors are able to understand and effectively assess citizenship as a curriculum subject”.

Ofsted cannot do that effectively if it fails to understand the nature and significance of citizenship education.

The evidence that Ofsted gave to the Liaison Committee demonstrates the nature of the problem and Ofsted’s inability to grasp what is required. It is clear from Robert Jenrick’s response to the letter from the then chair of the Liaison Committee, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, that this remains the case. I would be grateful if my noble friend Lady Barran can tell us what action is actually being taken to ensure compliance with the recommendations of both committees.

Unless there are incentives for schools to take teaching citizenship seriously, it will be neglected. Until citizenship education feeds into league tables, schools will not take it seriously. Whenever there are budget cuts, the trained citizenship teacher is the first to go. This matters for the health of our political system. Core to a healthy democracy, as the report argues, is active citizenship, but that rests on citizens having an understanding—indeed, an appreciation—of the system of government, how it works, what it can do for them and how they can engage with it. The problem is compounded by a growing lack of trust in government; survey evidence is that this lack of trust in now severe.

Politicians are part of the problem, but they are also part of the solution. Recent surveys have shown a dramatic lack of trust, not so much in our political structures as in the people who occupy them. Remarkably, in an Ipsos survey in February, lack of faith in politics/politicians/government ranked fourth in the list of issues seen as the most important facing Britain today, after the economy, inflation and the NHS. A YouGov poll last year also found that the problem was more with politicians than political structures. As a response to lack of trust in the system of government, some politicians rush to advocate constitutional change. As with the recent report authored by Gordon Brown, the arguments for change are muddled and constitute a form of displacement activity. The problem is with those rushing to advocate change. This is something that I will develop in a debate next week; for the moment, my point is that politicians need to address not only their own behaviour—we need a major strengthening of standards of behaviour—but also the lack of knowledge about our system of government.

Ensuring that citizenship education is embedded in our schools is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for restoring trust. Parliament gets a bad press, one that it does not necessarily deserve. It suffers from what I would term the arrogance of ignorance. People pontificate about Parliament and parliamentarians with a self-assuredness that is not grounded in any serious knowledge of the subject. There is a tendency to generalise from an N of one or two. We need to address the behaviour of politicians to ensure that there is not one or two—or more—from which people can generalise, but there also needs to be wider public awareness of the structures, processes and behaviour and of what Parliament can do for them and how they can have some input into what it is doing. This is becoming more and more of an uphill task because of the unwillingness of politicians to acknowledge and address it. For the past few years, there has been a bunker mentality. Parliamentarians need to come out of the bunker and proactively take steps to address the problem, otherwise it is not going to go away.

The stance taken by the Government is self-defeating. It is in their own interest to take this seriously. I would like to hear from my noble friend not only a recognition of the seriousness of the problem, but a commitment to ensuring that citizenship education is embedded and that schools are incentivised to take it seriously. Some years ago, the House resolved that Select Committee reports should be debated in the House, ideally in prime time. Debating this report in Grand Committee does not do justice to the seriousness of the issue. We are debating a subject that is crucial to the health of our political system. It is a false economy on the part of Government not to recognise that and to act upon it. What the Prime Minister has said today about maths applies also to citizenship education. An anti-maths mindset may be damaging the economy. A failure to educate citizens about our system of government is damaging to the health of the British polity.