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Improve civic education, Lord Harries urges Government

21 April 2023

House of Lords official portrait

Lord Harries

Lord Harries

THE need for citizenship and civic education is more pressing now than ever, a former Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd Lord Harries, said in a debate in the Grand Committee of the House of Lords on Monday.

He called for a minister — either in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, or in the Department for Education — to be given responsibility for ensuring an improvement in standards of civic education.

“What could be more British: waiting endlessly, getting nowhere, but refusing to give up?”

He also called for specially trained teachers for the subject, and a recognition that citizenship differed from the study of PSHE. The Government’s “unwillingness” to collect statistics on numbers of trainee teachers of citizenship was, he said, “another essential failure”.

The function of the debate was to take note of a follow-up report by the Liaison Committee on the part played by citizenship and civic education. The initial report, The Ties That Bind, was published in 2018.

Several members of the committee that produced the report spoke in the debate on Monday, including the Conservative Lord Hodgson, who chaired the committee.

Lord Hodgson criticised the Government’s response to the report in 2018: “As a committee, we were very disappointed with what the Government had to say, and in particular when we had a follow-up meeting with Ofsted, which seemed to have very little grasp of the issues and a lack of understanding of what the report had said.”

He asked, “What has our committee achieved in these six years? I think that the candid and truthful answer is not a lot, certainly not enough. I fear that we have not been able to convince the Government — we certainly have not been able to convince Ofsted — that citizenship represents a discrete policy area; moreover, a policy area that carries with it significant implications for the future social cohesion of our country.”

Lord Hodgson referred to demographic changes in the UK as among the reasons that citizenship education was so important. “Rapid population growth means that 28 per cent — more than one quarter — of the children born in this country last year were born to mothers who were not themselves born here,” he said.

Lord Harries, a cross-bencher, reiterated a criticism, made in the original report, of the definition of the “fundamental British values” that are supposed to be taught to all students in the UK. Lord Harries said that any definition of the term “British values” should include democracy, the rule of law, individual worth, and respect for the environment, as well as freedom of thought, expression, conscience, religion, and association.

Despite failing in previous efforts to incorporate this set of defining characteristics into the relevant legislation, Lord Harries said, he would continue trying to get it into law. Concluding his speech, he described the situation as “lamentable”.

“Major failings were exposed by our committee, and the Liaison Committee has forcefully shown that the Government have not faced up to them. They are still glaringly obvious,” he said.

He expressed a hope that the two main parties would include civic education in their manifestos for the next General Election, to ensure that the “absolutely valid recommendations” of the committee can be brought into effect.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Education, Baroness Barran, said that the Government “agree[s] with the committee that citizenship education and civic engagement opportunities are essential parts of a well-functioning democratic society”, and defended its approach to promoting such education.

Citizenship was “an important national curriculum subject at key stages 3 and 4, and all schools are encouraged to teach it as part of a broad and balanced curriculum”, Lady Barran said.

She also praised the opportunities provided by the National Citizen Service (NCS). “Our vision as a government is not only that young people have opportunities to learn about citizenship, and gain the knowledge that they need in order to be responsible and active citizens, but that they are given opportunities to, if you like, do citizenship and participate.”

Earlier in the debate, Baroness Barker, a Liberal Democrat, had criticised the NCS. While she agreed with its “basic premise”, she said, “in an area where resources are really scarce it continues to devour the lion’s share of what is available . . . despite a lack of evidence that it either delivers better tangible results than other organisations, or is the most cost-effective option.”

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