Never before have the British people been asked so frequently to take decisions with monumental consequences. Yet in the build-up to the recent EU Referendum , it is arguable that one of the most common claims made by citizens young and old was "I want more information" and/or "I don't understand the issue enough to be able to vote with confidence". In this scenario, the direct democracy of a referendum is left open to manipulation by those with more information, and therefore more power. So where does the solution lie?
Since the time of the Greek Agora, it has been a common assumption that education can provide an answer to problems of civic (dis-)engagement. And yet in the UK there continues to be a vague commitment at best to the subject arguably most important in this debate: citizenship education. Studies around the world in the last fifteen years have demonstrated that the subject can a) increase young people's' sense of political efficacy; b) increase the likelihood of sustained political engagement; and c) minimise the effects of socioeconomic factors on participation.
The authors of this post have seen firsthand the dangers that arise in the absence of good citizenship education, both in and out of the classroom. In their work with young citizens across the country and within initiatives such as the National Citizens Service (NCS), Bite the Ballot have found that a process of 'unlearning' is required in order to reverse a deep-seated dislike of the 'political' and feelings of apathy towards the problems facing their local communities. Our education system only further establishes such antipathy and passivity by neglecting citizenship and political literacy, wresting present and future political power from our young people without them even realising it.
In nearly all cases the symptoms of civic (dis-)engagement disproportionately affect the young. The most obvious indicator, voting turnout, paints a bleak picture: voting amongst 18-24 year olds fell below 40% in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, recovering to only 43% by 2015 - a drop eight percentage points on figures for 1997 (Ipsos MORI, 2015). At the same time these figures disguise a more sinister development in modern society: citizens within the top quintile for income are five times more likely to participate in political activities than those in the lowest and it has already been documented elsewhere that the link between resources and participation, known as the intergenerational transmission of political inequality, is effective and identifiable as early as school age.
These data reflect a crisis in civic society that has not been met by an appropriate or proportional institutional response. When citizenship education was first formally drafted for introduction as a curriculum subject in 1998, Sir Bernard Crick - the 'father' of the subject - declared: '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 evidence shows that this remains nothing more than an 'aim'. The success of citizenship education in the UK has waned dramatically since 2010; it is now a limited key stage 3/4 subject with confusing definitions, diverse delivery, a lack of trained specialists and weak national endorsement as a curriculum subject.
A study conducted by the Crick Centre (University of Sheffield) in 2016 worked with 110 teachers from more than 60 schools across England and Wales, and found that a) there is not a shared understanding of citizenship and the purpose of citizenship education; b) there is a distinct gap between academic work on good pedagogy for citizenship education and classroom practice due to an absence of in-service and pre-service teacher training opportunities; c) citizenship education continues to be sorely neglected and/or ignored in state secondary schools and national education policy; d) where citizenship is taught, it is delivered with inward looking political conceptions of 'good' rather than 'active' citizenship (Weinberg & Flinders, forthcoming).
These findings support additional research into external government-led schemes such as the NCS (Mills & Waites, 2017). Across institutional and extra-curricular education, there is an overwhelming focus on the soft social, emotional and non-cognitive skills such as relationships, budgeting, and healthcare. Whilst these are important for individual wellbeing and a sense of responsibility to oneself, they do not enhance the political literacy and participatory mindset of young people that is needed to cultivate active and engaged citizenship.
It is in this context that elected and advisory members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democratic Participation welcome a renewed commitment to citizenship education, voiced in particular by Minister for the Constitution, Chris Skidmore MP. Our democracy is best protected when citizens are equipped with the skills to engage with and challenge political processes and outcomes, and this commitment marks a step in the right direction towards that goal.
Today the APPG announces that it will be forming the Political Literacy Oversight Group to evaluate new attempts to improve citizenship education and political literacy by the Minister. This will be done in the knowledge that neither endeavour should be about politicising young people, but rather endowing them - as the inheritors of this country - with the desire and ability to actively engage with, and shape, a rapidly changing Britain.