Floundering for an angle as a member of a panel looking at the way forward after the Bill of Rights Commission report (organised by the Human Rights Centre at Durham), I latched onto issues relating to effective protection and promoting a positive human rights culture. This post is on one aspect of that, something that must surely be at the heart of any sensible state strategy for delivering and promoting human rights: civic education and engagement. More specifically, I was interested in finding out about “Citizenship” lessons within secondary schools – with a personal interest as well. My son is in his first year at secondary school (Year 7) and my daughter will join him in September. Like many, I imagine, I knew of “Citizenship” classes – that it was, or felt sure it was, part of the curriculum for 11-16 year olds… yet one year in, I was also fairly sure I had never seen any “Citizenship” homework nor even seen it feature on my son’s delightfully multi-coloured fortnightly planner. So, I set to work. This post is the result of some of those investigations.
Chapter 10 of the Commission’s report “Promoting a better understanding of the UK’s obligations” is, at just over two pages, its shortest chapter. This is slightly strange given one key factor behind the majority’s call for a British Bill of Rights is the perceived lack of ownership. Of about 3000 or so responses to both consultations (of which about 1800 were postcard replies from two human rights NGOs), fewer than 20 made submissions specifically about that aspect of the Commission’s terms of reference, though about 100 more made similar calls for better public education to correct misperceptions about the HRA and the ECHR. More than half of these advocated more educational programmes, both for UK society generally and schoolchildren, and in a number of cases argued the need for access to sources of accurate, unbiased information to balance what they believed to be the myths surrounding the HRA. In that light, the Commission’s conclusion here represents a wholesale failure to address the issue at all – even if one raised only by a minority of respondents.
We consider that the major contribution which we can make to this aspect of our terms of reference is our report itself, together with its annexes and the detailed responses to our consultations, which are available on the Commission’s website. In drafting the report we have been conscious of the need to make it as accessible as possible. We hope that anyone reading the report, who is not already expert in the subject matter which it covers, will at the very least gain a better understanding of the historical background and of the issues and arguments that give rise to a wide range of different views today.
The notion that the state has some sort of ongoing positive obligation to educate its citizens about the rights they are entitled to, to inculcate a sense of ownership and to instil the values of that state’s bill of rights is the Commission’s dog that didn’t bark. On the basis that there will be no change in this area at least, what can we expect our fellow citizens to know about how their rights are protected in the UK as a result of their formal education?
Citizenship was introduced into the secondary school curriculum in 1990. It became a formal statutory foundation subject in England in 2002, following the report of the Citizenship Advisory Group (the Crick report) in 1998, driven forward by David Blunkett when he was Secretary of State. In the remainder of the UK, “citizenship” remains a non-statutory subject (in Scotland, this applies to the whole curriculum, not just citizenship) and is generally not taught as a separate topic. The UK was one of the last western democracies to include “citizenship”, or something similar, in the formal curriculum (Spain was later, in 2006). By way of contrast, there have been elements of citizenship in the Lebanese curriculum since 1946 – albeit on differently constructed notions of “citizenship”.
In England, at key stage 3 (11-14) it is a foundation subject, along with all the others; for key stage 4 (14-16 or GCSE) it is foundation, alongside only ICT and PE – with maths, English and science as core – meaning there is a statutory programme of study up to school-leaving age at 16. To that extent it seems better positioned than say modern foreign languages (MFL) or humanities where schools need only offer one of e.g. history or geography. It is said to be the fastest growing GCSE subject, with some 100,000 estimated annually to have take it in the last couple of years. The secondary curriculum in England (i.e. both KS3 and KS4), revised after five years of operation in 2007 and with a planned revision – alongside all GCSE and secondary subjects from 2014 onwards – identifies three key substantive concepts: democracy & justice; identity & diversity; and rights & responsibilities. There is an interesting longitudinal study 2001-2010 on the effects of citizenship education conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research available here indicating inter alia that political participation and likely future participation increase with age for those who have taken or studied citizenship.
In the remainder of this post, I will explore some concerns with how citizenship is taught – largely in England – focusing on the extent to which it provides pupils with a framework for understanding how rights are protected in the UK. Knowing that it has been a compulsory topic in secondary schools all the time I have been teaching Public Law to 1st years, it has always been a source of bewilderment why so few students had any idea of the Human Rights Act. What follows might explain to other puzzled Public Law lecturers why that is the case. Of course, one immediate problem is that Citizenship is a required subject only at maintained, state schools. Academies are not bound by the national curriculum – that is one of their USPs to potential parents and possible teachers – and so as they proliferate, we will likely see fewer pupils leaving school at 16 with any understanding of their human rights.
First, although conferring on it foundation subject status at KS3 had all-party support, the difference between citizenship and say geography, history, music or art – on which it is on ostensibly even terms – is that only citizenship was introduced with a “light touch”. The curriculum provides, at best, a framework; there is no minimum weekly contact requirement, as there is for PE. Evidence is that very few have a dedicated hour per week; most schools seem either to “drip” it into other subjects such as Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE), as at my son’s school (or in RE where this week he has been looking at the UDHR), or to provide concentrated “enrichment days” once or twice per term. In Scotland, by contrast, (with its eight curriculum areas), citizenship – or more accurately global citizenship – is avowedly cross-curricular, so there is a clear and concerted objective, led from the top, that elements of it infiltrate the whole curriculum. That does not seem to be the case in England. There is little or no sense in which pupils understand they are being taught “citizenship”; it does not feature as a named topic on my son’s timetable and nor is there anyone on the staff who is named as the contact, and his most recent school report made no mention of anything even approaching it, and this at a state secondary school rated “outstanding” by OFSTED in its last two inspections. My very small sample of friends’ children at different state schools and friends who are state schoolteachers told a very similar tale. One – just about to embark on GCSEs – said “no, never heard of it”, despite the fact (see above) it is one of very few foundation requirements, and another thought they’d done something about voting in PSHE. As with all subjects, provision is patchy but at least those taking geography know they’re studying geography – and, broadly, most of us know what that involves: ox bow lakes and Cornish tin mining unless matters have moved on progressively since 1981! “Citizenship” is not only a fairly indeterminate title but when mixed with sex education and basic financial literacy, it seems fairly likely the immediacy and relevance of a domestic bill of rights – to the life of an ordinary 14 year old – is a little lost, or relegated.
Resources are limited, scarce even. Those I have spoken to at the Association for Teaching Citizenship report that only somewhere between 200-250 teachers undertake PCGE or similar training in Citizenship in any one year (and on specialist provision of courses, see OFSTED “Professional Development for Citizenship Teachers and Leaders”, 2009). That’s out of about 26,000 in total on PGCE courses, though admittedly that figure is for both secondary and primary school. In most, certainly many schools, teaching is likely to fall on those perceived to have the closest connection to the subject (at best) – those with politics degrees or who teach politics at GCSE – and (at worst) on those who take other subjects with low take-up, and who need hours to be filled. For those teachers keen to devise lessons – perhaps just to find out what the topic embraces, it having been landed on them in June for the next September – and looking for external support, there is remarkably little on the discrete area of British human rights. “Right here, right now” is a 2009 collaboration between Amnesty and the BIHR and the DCFS and MoJ – and for KS3 only, i.e. 11-14 year olds – but that is basically the limit. The materials at The Citizenship Foundation, partly funded by the Law Society and partly by the Cabinet Office’s Office for Civil Society (part of the Big Society idea), has little of relevance to the study of human rights under the HRA. There is, for example, on its website a useful short guide entitled “HUMAN RIGHTS ImpACT” but it dates from 1998, as the HRA was making its way through Parliament. There has been very little direct government support, financial or otherwise, since the financial crash of 2008 when – I was told – the Ministry of Justice School’s team was dismantled. A search (on 17th June) for any publications using the term “citizenship” on www.gov.uk against the MoJ produced no hits whatever. Neither do any of the various organisations within the Ministry of Justice indicate anything even vaguely connected with education or schools, let alone citizenship – despite its responsibility at a political level for almost the whole of what the curriculum covers.
This contributes to a third problem: the skew of materials, and teaching, is towards international human rights. The gap in resources has been filled by groups such as Amnesty; the evidence I have seen is that sessions on child soldiers, child labour, international humanitarian law or on terrorism – as examples of human rights “in action” tend to proliferate. The first two of course are understandable, given the likely sympathies and empathies that secondary school pupils would have. The last really does amplify the risk of normalising exceptionalism at the cost of the commonplace. What it means is that a 14 year old in Hackney is more likely to know about international norms and standards during wartime – even if not in those terms – and UN-inspired provisions than they are about civil and political rights generated closer to home and of more obvious everyday resonance. This gap is even more evident outside England. In Wales, there is no separate subject of Citizenship – many of its elements are subsumed within Personal and Social Education, not part of the national curriculum but within the school curriculum. The framework or guidance on PSE for 7 – 19 year olds makes not one mention of the HRA for KS 3 and KS4. The scope of rights is limited to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and on the Universal Declaration. In Scotland, the curriculum is organised around four “capacities” – including responsible citizenship – and citizenship is cross-curricular but, again, there is nothing on domestic or European human rights, or the HRA, bar a single page on the wider topic of political literacy.
The last concern is in many ways the most worrying of all, that of the content – and the misunderstandings it positively engenders and reinforces. The explanatory notes accompanying the current KS4 curriculum, when referring to human rights, assert that “students should explore the roles of the United Nations and the European Union in securing human rights”. There seems little hope of avoiding the “all European together” assemblage, whether deliberately constructed or not by The Daily Mail, if teachers – and then their students – are not taught the difference between the different types of Europe. It became clear, during the consultation just ended, that Citizenship was not going to be downgraded within the curriculum – it will retain its compulsory status. This was met with relief by teachers’ groups. However, for those interested in citizenship as a means of embedding a rights-respecting culture and of laying the bedrock for promoting a better understanding of the issues stand to be disappointed. After its implementation in 2014, if the consultation portends anything (see National Curriculum Framework pp.149 available here), there will be a clear shift away from the concept of “rights”. The draft curriculum upholds the “democracy & justice” strand but seems to eliminate entirely the idea of (human) rights. The draft sets out the purpose of a high quality citizenship education as being
to provide pupils with knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare them to play a full and active part in society. In particular, citizenship education should foster pupils’ keen awareness of how the United Kingdom is governed and how its laws are made and upheld. It should also prepare pupils to take their place in society as responsible citizens by providing them with the skills and knowledge to manage their money well and make sound financial decisions.
Furthermore, they should be taught about “the precious liberties enjoyed by the citizens of the United Kingdom”. The very rejection of any notion of positive rights, obligations owed by the state – and needing justification for any intrusion – might be seen as laying the ground for a reversion to common law Diceyan residualism That would dovetail with where we came in, the future of a British Bill of Rights. If Citizenship teaching is anything to go by, we should be very wary about what might happen when, in Mark Elliott’s words, the Commission’s report does, eventually, leave the political long grass.
David Mead is Professor of UK Human Rights Law in the Law School at the University of East Anglia
Suggested citation: D. Mead ‘Real-ising Human Rights: On The Ground Protection Under The HRA Through Citizenship Education’ UK Const. L. Blog (18th June 2013) (available at