Stephen Lambert: Scrapping citizenship A-levels is a foolish and short-sighted move

Stephen Lambert says students need citizenship skills more than ever - yet the qualification in the subject is likely to be scrapped

Oxfam shop
Oxfam shop

Over 2,000 learners are following AS/A-level Citizenship Studies courses across the country as part of their overall GCE A-level programme.

This is to be welcomed by all those who want to see a ‘politically, economically educated electorate’ in the second decade of the 21st century.

Yet the Government quango, Ofqual, has recommended that the subject be deleted from the GCE A-level programme.

Nothing could be more foolish or short-sighted at a time when local councils, campaign groups such as ‘Bite The Ballot’, and politicians from all parties are trying to get more young people aged 18 to 24 to register to vote in one of the most important general elections in the last 60 years.

Numeracy, literacy and information technology (IT) – commonly known as ‘functional skills’ in the further and adult education sector – are all taught in our school sixth forms and further and adult education colleges.

Yet post-16 courses in Citizenship Studies remain neglected, with the exception of the 160 innovative Post-16 and adult education providers across the UK. The subject should be made mandatory, and this view commands some support from educational leaders across the country.

Like fixing a plug or mending a fuse, citizenship education is a ‘life and social’ skill that we all need.

One major feature of citizenship education is a grasp of political, legal, economic and social processes. For instance, politics is concerned with power in our society. It affects nearly every feature of our lives. Decisions not only have to be taken in national, local and European settings, but also need to be taken within day-to-day social relationships. In essence, this is what politics is all about.

To participate effectively within the various decision-making processes, it’s essential that people are suitably equipped with the relevant civic or political knowledge, skills and confidence.

The last 40 years has seen the rapid development of society with the consequences of more centralised political-decision making, despite devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Centralised power has reduced the ability of citizens to actively influence decision making, let alone understand it.

More disturbingly in the last decade, a huge chunk of the population feel ‘alienated’ from the democratic process. About four out of 10 of those registered to vote in the 2010 general election didn’t bother. Turnout in the 2014 council elections was even lower and staggeringly only 16% of the country’s electors turned out to vote for the controversial election for a Police and Crime Commissioner in November in 2013.

If this is bad, consider voting among young people. According to the experts only 44% per cent of 18 to 24-year olds voted in the last general election, and a derisory one in 10 put a cross on a ballot paper in the last European elections!

Ignorance about the issues at stake, and of people’s own role in implementing change is a major factor in accounting for this ‘disillusionment’.

Citizenship education in our sixth forms can help to create an active, informed and engaged electorate. The maintenance of a successful mature democracy is dependent on people exercising a choice between political parties and their policies. Civic education can provide an awareness and deeper understanding of the ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ of citizens. It’s crucial that young people by the age of 19 understand how Parliament works, what the various political parties stand for, what an MP or magistrate does and how the British legal and political system operates. Furthermore, they need to volunteer in a local charity, such as Oxfam, Scope or Cancer Research. Lessons in citizenship can help combat voter apathy, low levels of civic participation and create a mature populace.

At A-level Citizenship Studies is no soft option. Students are expected to acquire a solid level of knowledge and understanding of how our democratic, judicial and economic systems operate in a post-modern society. At AS level, learners have to produce a short project demonstrating their involvement in the local community or campaign group which requires research and skills of critical analysis. Contrary to popular belief most universities are quite happy to accept the subject as an additional A-level.

In an era of rapid change and declining participation in public affairs, the need for citizenship education in the post- 16 educational curriculum could not be greater.

Stephen Lambert is a local sociologist and freelance writer.

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