ARTICLE | What is the state of education for democracy in the UK today?

James Weinberg, Research Associate, The Sir Bernard Crick Centre.

As the latest World Forum on Democracy looms large in Strasbourg this November, the UK has held its own satellite event in the Houses of Parliament with a focus on ‘skills for democracy’ (SfD).

The panel, convened by Democracy Matters, brought together a range of expert speakers in the fields of education and democracy to comment on the state of play in the UK. The debate emphasised the urgent need for a circumspect review of education for democracy in the UK. The narrative was clear: that the future sustainability of our democracy relies, as Ashok Viswanathan of Operation Black Vote succinctly stated at the end of the event, on the interconnected issues of education, participation and representation.

There has not been enough joined up thinking in Whitehall or the lobby to recognise that the democratic deficit of the 21st century exists reciprocally at each of these levels and that the solution must as well. The better we educate our young people to engage critically with political processes, the more likely they are to participate, and ultimately the more likely they are to stand as representatives who are responsive to a broad agenda of popular concerns. If only it were that easy.

Back in 1975 the report of the Trilateral Commission clearly stated that so long as social structures continued to ensure that wealth and learning were concentrated in the hands of a few, the future of democracy would be unsustainable. When the UK finally introduced a compulsory mode of political education through the subject of citizenship in 2002, the symptoms of our democratic deficit were already starkly apparent.

As Lord Blunkett, former Education Secretary, announced in his contribution to the SfD event: ‘there is now a danger to democracy here and across the world…for social democracy it may even be terminal’. The idea that Westminster can continue to sustain itself with mobilising consent alone is more naive than ever. Never before have the British people been asked so frequently to take decisions, with monumental consequences, about the way we should be governed and the very constitution of our political system. That phenomenon known as the referendum, once anathema in British politics, has surfaced in recent years to pass laws on so-called super statutes such as membership of the European Union, our voting system and the continued union of the British Isles. Yet these choices are taking place against a backdrop of declining civic engagement and cripplingly low levels of political education.

Citizenship education was touted as an antidote to this in the 1990s, but it has stumbled into its second decade on the national curriculum harangued by cynicism and it only narrowly retained statutory status in the 2014 curriculum reforms. This subject, so critical in the fight against the intergenerational transmission of political inequality, is suffering due to problems of definition and delivery, non-specialist teaching staff, a confused purpose, and a severely diminished national endorsement. In a recent study of teachers from 15 curriculum areas at all stages of their career from around the UK, I found that some 96% of participants believed that it is important or very important for schools to teach pupils how to become active and responsible citizens and 88.9% felt that this was their responsibility as classroom teachers. However, 88.7% of participants felt that their teacher training had not prepared them to carry out this responsibility and only 15.8% felt that the current citizenship curriculum prepares pupils to be active and responsible citizens in any case. There is an obvious disconnect here and a dire need for the government to commit itself towards a formalised programme of continuing professional development for teachers if the managed decline of citizenship education is going to be reversed. This is a diagnosis I have previously written about in The Conversation and I passionately believe that action needs to be taken on all four fronts mentioned above if the subject is to survive.

David Kerr (Association of Citizenship Teachers and the University of Reading) lamented the naivety of the Coalition Government who, just as citizenship education was taking root, sidelined it for a new manifesto of politically marketable education narratives, cuts to initial teacher training and subject specific Ofsted reports, and a diluted curriculum devoid of active participation. The concept of character development, so coinable since David Cameron’s Big Society directive, has marginalised the formal political literacy of community engagement and conflated citizenship with the notion of volunteering. As Bernard Crick once said, volunteering can be understood as the act of students donating food and assisting in a shelter, whereas active citizenship is learning how to interrogate the reasons why that hunger and the disease of food poverty exist in the first place and campaigning to alter the state of play. This is not to say that volunteering and character development do not share a relationship with citizenship, but we need to be clear in education to clarify the distinction between volunteering as a learning process with social/cultural capital as an outcome, and learning through active community engagement with understanding the political base and processes of community as a central outcome. Yet even this debate may be too far away at present. The current government continue to assess the subject for its ‘fit’ within a test-focused curriculum, reflected in a general move towards citizenship as a ‘ghost feature’ of education. It is now present in many faces under various umbrella schemes such as Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural education (SMSC), the Prevent Programme, and fundamental ‘British Values’.

The ‘levelling spirit’ of democracy commits us to egalitarian principles that are best protected when people have a basic understanding of how political processes function and affect them, both in order to critique democracy and correct its malfunctions. However there is a significant knowledge gap about parliamentary process and governance that is limiting the extent to which young people can engage in politics, with both a capital and small ‘p’, in a meaningful way.

Samira Musa of Bite the Ballot made this point in parliament when she told the audience that the young people she works with do not know if their views are a) political, or b) important. In the case of the latter, it is crucial that education for democracy gives young people a renewed sense of self-empowerment. Ruth Spellman of the Workers’ Educational Association reminded us that this issue exists further along the educational pipeline and that a proper political education must allow people of all ages to ‘think for themselves’. Ruth’s point was eloquent of a wider issue of ignorant acquiescence that precludes the ideal form of public engagement in deliberative decision-making that Sarah Allen, of Think Involve, outlined in her participation-based renewal of democracy. Time-poor citizens are operating in an information- and opinion-rich environment that can supplement preferences and judgements about politics (indeed most aspects of the modern social world) using a surface-level facade of, usually, hyperbolic rhetoric. Such a view of politics, a concept of ‘thin’ democracy, functions on the outcomes of what Daniel Kahneman calls intuitive ‘fast’ thinking in his best seller of 2011. If we want a sustainable model of democracy for the 21st century, then we need to draw on the importance of ‘slow’ thinking as an educational process to hone critical capacities and attitudes, to inform useful participation, and to introduce a sense of realism to public expectations.

Democracy in crisis may sound like a rote claim to a modern audience but we ignore the warning at our peril; the veneer between democracy and despotism has arguably never been more fragile. The UK is witnessing a mutual withdrawal of citizens from politics in general, and of politicians into the institutions of the state. Both diminish the mandate of our political system and entrench the asymmetry of interdependence that exists between the public and political elites. The lesson made clear at the SfD event is that if we want to improve the quality of representation and participation, we must begin with education. The organising parties of the event will now be pushing for a Speaker’s Commission on Education for Democracy that may tie into the government’s own White Paper commitment to ‘review the national curriculum’s citizenship programme of study’.

Politicians and educators of all political persuasions in this process should be reminded of Bernard Crick’s ‘noble paragraph’ of 1998: ‘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.’