Filling a Democratic Deficit?

Posted on March 30th, 2017 by James Weinberg

Crick Centre Research Associate James Weinberg discusses the need for reforms to formal citizenship education and the benefits of new guidance for the Extended Project Qualification developed with the Association for Citizenship Teaching

The recent Brexit vote has underlined the increasingly fractured nature of UK society and the disaggregation of political and cultural attitudes among our citizens. These worries have for some time produced a wave of research and writing on the phenomenon of anti-politics and potential ‘response modes’. In their attempt to understand and proffer solutions to symptoms as wide-ranging as political disaffection, diminishing turnout, and the intergenerational transmission of political inequalities, academics as well as policy makers have focused on new methods of democratic design. These have included deliberative mechanisms such as participatory budgeting in Iceland and e-petitioning to the UK Parliament. Both are examples of supply side reforms aimed at facilitating public interest and engagement in a political system that gives them agency. However, these publications have largely overlooked the power of demand side reforms in general, and the role of education in particular.

For Bernard Crick it was citizenship education, introduced as a compulsory element of the national curriculum in 2002 for all secondary school students, which provided an opportunity to enhance the political literacy of all young people and, through this, counter rising levels of democratic inequality. The aim of citizenship education is not to politicise young people in a partisan sense or simply provide a basic understanding of British political institutions. Its aim was to cultivate a deeper sense of the social and moral obligations that citizenship of any political community places upon its members – to cultivate active and engaged citizenship amongst all sections of society.

Photo obtained via Flickr. Photographer: Adam Scotti.

However, the efficacy of citizenship education in the UK has been plagued by a) an implementation gap under New Labour, symptomatic of common issues in the governance of symbolic policy decisions, and b) a significant vision shift under the Coalition and Conservative governments. Although retained in the 2014 curriculum reforms, citizenship education was dealt two additional blows. The A-Level qualification was scrapped (effective as of 2017) and the content of the Key Stage 3 curriculum was watered down in its formal political literacy content. Yet the need and demand for effective citizenship education has arguably never been greater, especially given recent publications by academics such as Maria Grasso in the UK suggesting that the generational cohorts coming of age since the 1960s and 1970s are more conservative, more individualized and less likely to engage in any form of political activity. This was acknowledged last summer in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education, signed by thirty-seven head teachers and representatives from professional associations,  demanding renewed dedication to ‘the teaching of PSHE, Citizenship and Religion in post-Brexit Britain’. The issue is also gaining traction on the parliamentary agenda. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democratic Participation recently launched a Political Literacy Oversight group and only yesterday questions on political education were put forward in the House of Lords:

Lord Lexden: Does my noble friend feel that enough is being done in schools to familiarise our young people with the full range of electoral issues, particularly in the light of the Institute for Digital Democracy’s recent recommendation that political education might become compulsory?

Lord Young of Cookham (Lords Spokesperson for the Cabinet Office): It is important that those of us in public life, whether Members of this House or the other House, take the initiative in visiting schools….I think everyone in this and the other House has a role to play in encouraging the next generation to take part in the democratic process.

Lord Young’s response is vague at best and puts the responsibility for democratic renewal and political education once again in the court of supply side tactics, the expectation being that politicians can reach out, inspire and educate our young people to participate in political processes. There is no doubt that more frequent interactions between politicians and young people are desperately needed in order to build trust and even an understanding of the job of politics, but it is in schools where educators can cultivate a deeper understanding of democratic politics and participation.

The Youth Politics strand at the Crick Centre is committed to furthering the research base on citizenship education whilst promoting its practical implementation across secondary and higher education. In this spirit I recently contributed to a new guidance document – produced by Kevin Walker, a retired teacher of Citizenship and EPQ supervisor for the Association for Citizenship Teaching – for Secondary School teachers on how to supervise Extended Project Qualifications (taken by pupils aged 16-18) in active citizenship. This document has been endorsed by AQA and takes one step towards filling the gap produced by the end of the citizenship A-Level. The document will be stored permanently on the Crick Centre website and promoted to teaching staff across the country. In an uncertain future we will need citizens to be willing and able to engage in democratic processes, not merely for personal benefit but more importantly to correct its malfunctions when things go wrong and to protect a fragile common good. Citizenship education will have a key role to play in securing that vision.


James is a Research Associate at the Crick Centre working on the ‘personal side of politics’. Currently a doctoral research student, his ESRC-funded PhD focuses on the value orientations of national politicians in the UK; the research hopes to illuminate the psychological imperatives associated with the job of representation and the personal dynamics of MPs’ roles, behaviours and legislative decisions. James has already completed a pilot study with 48 UK MPs.

Alongside his PhD James is currently leading on a new strand of research investigating the ways citizenship education can be reformed, both process and content, to tackle political apathy and reinvigorate democracy. He currently holds the position of Lead Fellow for Citizenship on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democratic Participation. James is the Chair of the Political Studies Association Early Career Network, which represents the interests of postgraduate students, post doctoral researchers and early career academics within the PSA. He is a member of the Study of Parliament Group and sits on the committee of the Hertford Society. Previously James has worked in secondary education as an English teacher in London. He completed his Masters in Political Science at the University of  Manchester and his BA in History at the University of Oxford.

Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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