Ingenuity and British citizenship in unpropitious times

This is a deeply important story that we’ve heard dozens of times in recent months, but the path to a healthier, more inclusive democracy remains unclear.

Billy Sawyers
1 November 2016
Chris Radburn PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

"The level of political debate was a joke." Pro-Brexit campaigners protest alongside pro-Europe protesters as they take part in a March for Europe rally following June 2016's EU referendum. Chris Radburn PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.In Britain our democratic institutions are being put under more and more strain. June’s Brexit vote has raised crippling questions of our unwritten constitution, whilst exposing the realities of a population that is increasingly marginalised and disenfranchised along the lines of age, class, gender and race. The level of political debate was a joke. Political apathy is rife and for many, participation and deliberation remain completely inaccessible.

This is a deeply important story that we’ve heard dozens of times in recent months, but the path to a healthier, more inclusive democracy remains unclear.

As a media partner for November’s World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg, openDemocracy recently attended Skills for Democracy, an open forum convened by Democracy Matters in the House of Commons. The event had parliamentary support from Graham Allan MP and Lord Blunkett, and featured a varied panel – including openDemocracy editor, Rosemary Bechler – that represented the remarkable range of organisations engaged with the twin issues of citizenship and democracy education.For many, participation and deliberation remain completely inaccessible 

The event looked to bolster interest in the World Forum for Democracy 2016 and build momentum for a broader campaign on improving skills for democracy across the UK. It also precipitated the launch of Practical Politics by Titus Alexander – who hosted the forum – a book that aims to spark a critical engagement with the way in which we learn, teach, understand and utilise our skills for democracy. “There are some simple principles you can learn,” Titus explained, “and the key is to start simply: what do you want? What's the outcome you want? Who's got the power to make it happen? Then it comes down to ingenuity.”

Ingenuity brings empowerment, then, and finds its basis in democratic participation and political literacy – both of which are sorely lacking within our decision-making processes. From this starting point, the panel probed into the problems facing democracy education in Britain today, surprising me with an insight into just how entrenched and complex this situation is.

A post-Brexit panel

The first speaker, James Weinberg of the Crick Centre, began by making a crucial link between inadequate democracy education and alarming rates of political inequality in the UK. Lacking the skills and opportunities needed to participate in democracy as equal citizens, huge segments of the country have become apathetic towards politics and politicians. Weinberg pointed to the intergenerational transfer of political inequality, which leads to the alienation of whole communities from politics – a symptom that becomes all the more clear when our democracy is tested.

Our recent referendum was one such test and the result was if anything strong evidence of the endemic marginalisation that Weinberg highlighted. For him, as for David Kerr, who was next to speak, the first step towards remedying political inequality is in schools, where education for democracy and citizenship has continually fallen far short of what is required for widespread political literacy and participation.

Though citizenship forms part of the statutory curriculum for all secondary schools apart from academies, it is an undervalued subject taught with insufficient teacher training, shoehorned with other supposedly ‘soft’ subjects like personal, social and health education. It exists in no form in primary education, nor will it at A-level from 2017. Even the optional GCSE has recently been stripped of its practical content.

Weinberg and Kerr both underlined that citizenship is often relegated below ‘real’ or ‘valuable’ subjects by educational authorities, despite (or maybe because of) its application to a huge range of real-life issues.

As one of few subjects in the National Curriculum that engages with current affairs rather than looking backwards or introspectively, citizenship studies had wide support from the panel and audience as an antidote to political apathy. With well-trained teachers and rigorous curricula, citizenship education in schools is a proven model for engaging young people in politics and democracy, according to Kerr.
Citizenship is no longer valued as an inclusive, empowering subject

Indeed, citizenship achieved short-lived success as an educational initiative under New Labour, when David Blunkett led a series of reforms that resulted in its incorporation in the National Curriculum as a core subject. Blunkett’s reforms were informed by the research of his former university tutor Sir Bernard Crick, whose Crick Report, all present agreed, remains a seminal text for citizenship educators.

The late Crick put forward three strands of citizenship education which became recurring themes throughout the Skills for Democracy event: social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy. This vision won cross-party support at the turn of the millennium and underpinned an expansive programme that went far beyond children’s education.

But lamentably, it has fallen flat in recent years following Coalition cuts to citizenship programmes, which have been displaced by a gathering focus on counter-extremism, with Prevent and the weirdly-named ‘Fundamental British Values’. Citizenship is no longer valued as an inclusive, empowering subject, while the lack of public knowledge on parliament and democratic processes remains entrenched. In his speech, Lord Blunkett expressed pride at the leadership he and his party gave to citizenship education and political literacy, but also a sense of regret that he failed to see his reforms through until they were firmly embedded in society and culture.

What really stuck with me though was Blunkett’s advocacy for a Make Poverty History-style campaign for political literacy and skills for democracy, a mass mobilisation that could include high-profile concerts, debates and demonstrations. An all-encompassing movement like this, with the support of government and of the BBC, could go far towards funding and embedding citizenship initiatives in the public sphere. Blunkett contrasted this to the recent emergence of anti-establishment social movements which he felt did not fully engage with participative democratic processes or build skills for political literacy.

Flickr/Ted Conference/Bruno Vincent. Some rights reserved.

A Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh, July 2005, ahead of the G8 Summit in Gleneagles. Flickr/Ted Conference/Bruno Vincent. Some rights reserved.

Some causes for optimism rose out of the discussion, including the popular suggestion by Titus Alexander of a campaign for a Commission on Learning for Democracy, for which he will be seeking to build a coalition of support in the near future. Other ideas included establishing a National Centre for the Social Curriculum and a reinvigorated citizenship curriculum that would be compulsory at all levels of education. Regrettably, no representatives from the government or even the Conservative Party had accepted the invitations to attend, so these conversations could only be speculative.

Alternative avenues

Many of the other speakers represented charities and civil society organisations whose work on democracy and participation exists largely outside of the education system.

Naturally, these experts were keen to emphasise that mainstream education was just one of several avenues for citizenship and participative democracy. “Learning in schools is essential but it doesn't work for everyone,” Sarah Allan, Engagement Lead at Involve, told me. “They could have all the skills they like but if their experience of participation is that it doesn't make any difference, they're unlikely to keep participating.”

For Sarah and her colleagues at Involve, engagement means incorporating people usually passed off as ‘hard to reach’. She explained that the key to extending participation in decision-making processes is in making the right offer. When the conversation is about mental health issues, for instance, young people are far more prepared to speak up if they have first-hand experience of such issues and the services that are meant to treat them – and this is increasingly the case for young people in the UK, especially young women.
Engagement means incorporating people usually passed off as ‘hard to reach’ 
Several times on the day, mental health was highlighted as an example of an issue that engages a huge range of people, but which is rarely considered for its political and decision-making dimensions. “People say, 'I'm not interested in politics', 'I'm anti-politics' and so on. In fact they are interested in politics, because they are bothered by something -– mental health issues, for example”, Titus told me afterwards. Drawing a useful comparison with business education, which is practical and dynamic, he suggested that part of the problem with citizenship education is that it’s often understood in abstract terms, even though it deals with issues that affect people directly.

How we can increase awareness of and participation in the ‘political’ side of societal problems, then, appears to be a central part of the task at hand. This extends beyond the need for political literacy mentioned by David Blunkett, and “looks like a greater say for people in decisions that affect their lives between elections,” according to Sarah Allan.

It also extends beyond the education of children and young people. Just 6% of government education spending goes on post-19s – the demographic essentially comprising the voting population. It is clear that far more resources need to be invested in continuing education for democracy and citizenship into adulthood.

Instead, this is left to such valiant civil society organisations as the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), which offers an all too rare example of how adult education can be a force for democratic change outside of normative political processes. In her speech, General Secretary Ruth Spellman elaborated on the strengths of WEA’s extensive national network, which links it to many different communities, educational partners and campaigning organisations. It is through these connections that the seed of citizenship can be planted in local areas, she affirmed, before highlighting the sense of empowerment that can be engendered in renewed, inclusive communities governed by open institutions.
Just 6% of government education spending goes on post-19s

We heard next from Operation Black Vote, which for two decades has championed black and ethnic minority representation and participation in democratic processes and played a vital role in smashing the racial divides that have long made British politics an exclusive affair. Chair Ashok Viswanathan highlighted his organisation’s success in enabling the careers of several prominent politicians – including mayors Sadiq Khan and Marvin Rees, Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis and Conservative MP Helen Grant – through parliamentary shadowing schemes and leadership programmes.

Reaching out

What stood out to me across the range of initiatives represented by the speakers was the imperative for democracy and citizenship education to exist on multiple fronts, if true inclusivity and participation in decision-making is to be realised. This means integrating these issues more firmly into our understanding of politics on the one hand, and providing more opportunities for participation and deliberation on the other. Engagement and opportunity are especially important if marginalisation within our democracy is to be overcome.

Flickr/Catherine Bebbington/Parliamentary Copyright. Some rights reserved.

“A big part of what we're trying to do now is to reach marginalised communities, to reach younger students, because the evidence shows that they know less about parliament and as such, value it less,” Dan Gallacher told me of Parliament’s Education Service after the event had finished. His role centres on providing tours of parliament for a target of 100,000 schoolchildren every year. This forms part of a larger programme for political literacy that also offers to schools free teaching resources and Q&A sessions with the Speaker, John Bercow. The Speaker, John Bercow, explains the important role Parliament’s Education Service and Outreach Service play in explaining the role of Parliament to people throughout the UK. Flickr/Catherine Bebbington/Parliamentary Copyright. Some rights reserved.Rapidly expanding and with plenty of ambition, Parliament’s Education Service was one of the most encouraging initiatives that I learned about on the day, standing out in the surprisingly bleak overview of democracy education that emerged throughout. Gallacher readily agreed: “Today if anything has been a wake-up call for me, that things aren't as rosy across the scene and I'm probably naïve.”

Judging from discussions around the room, Skill for Democracy was indeed a wake-up call for many of those present. But it was also widely recognised that we have a chance to build momentum, given the passion for democratic citizenship evident in the room.

Hopes are pinned in the immediate future on the World Forum for Democracy 2016, where bright minds from the UK will join those across the world in exploring just how central education is to achieving true fairness and participation in all our politics. Stay tuned for more coverage from openDemocracy.

openDemocracy will be at this year's World Forum for Democracy, exploring the relationship between education and democracy with a citizens’ newsroom. Register here.

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