'The necessity of teaching citizenship' by Lord Norton of Louth

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Lord Norton of Louth is a Conservative Peer in the House of Lords, as well as Professor of Government in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Hull. Here he writes for Democratic Life on why he thinks the Government should be embracing citizenship education ‘with vigour’.

When I visit schools as part of the House of Lords ‘Peers in Schools’ programme, I begin by explaining why Parliament matters. Parliament matters because politics matter. We exist within a society where we are bound by rules. Politics constitute the means by which those rules are debated and agreed. Rules that are to have legal force – that constitute the law – are agreed by Parliament. Acts of Parliament are enforced by the courts, police and by other public agencies. Parliament is thus a central part of our constitutional arrangements. Government may wish to pursue a particular policy – that is, apply a particular rule – but that policy will not be enforceable until approved by Parliament.

Our lives are shaped by what law permits and what it does not permit. Acts of Parliament stipulate the age at which individuals can drive, buy cigarettes, leave school, vote and get married. Acts of Parliament prohibit people physically assaulting other people, stealing from them, from supplying or possessing particular drugs and from driving while under the influence of alcohol.

Parliament does not exist in a vacuum. Laws are made as a result of a particular party being elected to government on a particular programme of public policies. It may respond to pressures from the public to introduce new laws or to change existing ones. At the moment, there is pressure building up to introduce a law to allow for assisted dying (enabling people to provide some assistance to individuals who are terminally ill and wish to die) and for a review of the existing law on the supply and possession of drugs. Over the years, laws have been changed in response to demands for change.

Knowing not only what constitutes politics but also the process by which law is made are not just attributes of an active citizen but also important for influencing one’s own future. If we do not understand the political process, we cannot expect to be able to influence the outcomes of public policy. Without such an understanding, we are subject to rules that we may not like but which we are powerless to influence. To understand the political process is thus a form of empowerment. It enables citizens to know how to act to influence the outcome of policies. It is no use complaining about a particular policy if you have been silent and taken no steps to express a view on it while it is being considered by Parliament.

Engagement in the political process is the sign of an active citizenship and a healthy democracy. But how to ensure people have a grasp of the political process? Those who are especially keen can study politics at A-level and at university, but that encompasses only a minority of citizens. There are not the resources to provide that level of education to every citizen. The answer is through teaching citizenship in schools. That is the only means of reaching each generation of young people. Broader programmes of public education may reach some adults but there is no means of being comprehensive in the same way as citizenship teaching in school.

Given that, citizenship teaching should not be viewed as some optional extra but rather as an essential component of a healthy democracy. It needs not only to be defended but also promoted and, indeed, given far greater priority. Far from moving away from it, Government needs to be embracing it and with vigour.

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