Learning the Language of Participation: New Labour and Citizenship Education

Posted on June 8th, 2017 by James Weinberg

In the last of a series of blogs marking the 20th anniversary of New Labour coming to power, Crick Centre Research Associate James Weinberg considers New Labour’s impact on Citizenship Education

‘Education, education, education’ echoed round the corridors of Whitehall as the New Dawn erupted in 1997 and brought with it a vision for social capital, cohesion, and participation that prioritised the classroom. Alongside reforms to teachers’ pay and training, qualifications and significant financial investment in schools, New Labour took a brave and bold step to promote politics as a universal subject in secondary schools through the medium of citizenship education. The strong leadership of David Blunkett (then Secretary of State for Education and Employment) and the historic campaigning of Sir Bernard Crick and the Politics Association brought to fruition a White Paper, Excellence for Everyone, only two months after Labour’s election. The commitment in that document, to introduce citizenship education as a national curriculum subject, was realised in 2002. It was, as Anthony Giddens commented, ‘extraordinarily important […as part of New Labour’s] programmes of political change’. Giddens located the introduction of citizenship education within a ‘Second Wave Democratisation’ that extended to include devolution and constitutional reforms under New Labour as well.

We need to be clear that there was nothing ‘new’ about New Labour’s ideas here. As early as 1974 the Politics Association had developed a programme for political education complete with proposals for curriculum reform. The Association not only lobbied the government on the desirability of citizenship education but argued that ‘a person who has a fair knowledge of what are the issues of contemporary politics, is equipped to be of some influence, whether in school, factory, voluntary body or party, and can understand and respect, while not sharing, the values of others, can reasonably be called “politically literate”’. The efforts of the Politics Association had been quashed by the vehement resistance of the Thatcher governments in the 80s, who were both cynical about the potential of citizenship education and nervous about the hierarchical implications for UK governance of a new citizen culture. Even within the Labour Party, revisionists such as David Marquand had argued since the 60s that Labour was blindly occupied by the concept of equality and had not given sufficient thought or attention to promoting political participation. Thus it was not the idea but the intention that was new in 1997; for the first time there was a policy commitment to universal political education and the political will within the government to support it.

In 1997 David Blunkett set up the Advisory Group on Citizenship (AGC), chaired by his university mentor and renowned political commentator Sir Bernard Crick. The AGC published a report, Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, in 1998 which laid out a noble vision for ‘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’. Blunkett championed the aims and ambition of this report, arguing in Parliament that action was necessary

[T]o ensure that the curriculum reflects the critical importance of citizenship and democracy to equip our young people for the world of tomorrow so that they understand the structures of our society and democratic institutions, and their part in holding the Government to account.

The central motivation of this movement, and of citizenship education in general, was not to politicise young people but to make them political: to endow them with an understanding of the law, the machinations that drive industry and trade, the formal and informal avenues of political campaigns. In doing so it was hoped that education could make accessible these and other meso- or macro-level institutions, and in turn generate a desire or wherewithal in every citizen to participate in ‘political’ decision-making across a range of issues when they left school.

However, if we take a long view of the last twenty years since New Labour entered government, the legacy of citizenship education has not lasted the test of time. Citizenship education is (and always will be) a highly symbolic policy that, for practical implementation reasons under New Labour and ideological reasons under the Coalition and Conservative governments, has never been properly embedded within the framework of educational governance in schools or in initial teacher training (ITT). The success of citizenship education in the UK has thus 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. Yet in nearly all cases the symptoms of modern 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 2001 and 2005 and only recovered to 44% in 2010 and 43% in 2015 – a drop of seven and eight percentage points respectively on figures for 1997.

In his Essays on Citizenship, Crick noted that ‘[n]early everywhere there is citizenship education in schools … some historically contingent sense of crisis has been the trigger.’ In liberal democracies the world over, systemic change and uncertainty points towards an impending dilemma for the way we ‘do’ politics. It may be that a new trigger, one that will reinvigorate the New Labour vision of citizenship education, is fast approaching.


James Weinberg is Research Lead for Youth Politics in the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, Dept. of Politics, University of Sheffield

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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