1. Liaison Committee inquiry into citizenship and civic engagement

In 2018, an inquiry by the House of Lords Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement examined citizenship and civic engagement in the UK, considering issues including citizenship teaching in England, democratic engagement, participation in civic society and the naturalisation of people wishing to become British citizens. The committee’s report, ‘The ties that bind: Citizenship and civic engagement in the 21st century’, made several recommendations including that there should be greater cross-government coordination of the policies on civic engagement and citizenship. It said the government should appoint a minister with responsibility for this policy area. The committee also criticised the ‘life in the UK’ citizenship test, describing the test questions as arbitrary.

The Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement was an ad hoc committee and ceased to exist at the end of the 2017–19 session. The House of Lords Liaison Committee conducted a follow-up inquiry on citizenship and civic engagement, which focused on three areas:

  • cross-government coordination and strategy
  • citizenship education
  • the ‘life in the UK’ citizenship test

The Liaison Committee’s report, ‘The ties that bind: Citizenship and civic engagement in the 21st century—follow-up report’ (March 2022), included the following recommendations concerning cross-government coordination and strategy:

  • The committee repeated the recommendation made by the Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement that the government should appoint a minister with responsibility for citizenship and civic engagement. This recommendation had not been implemented by the government. In subsequent correspondence with the committee, the government argued the inter-ministerial group for safe and integrated communities was responsible for coordinating policy in these areas. In its 2022 report, the Liaison Committee argued a ministerial appointment remained necessary, arguing insufficient progress had been made since 2018. It also noted the inter-ministerial group for safe and integrated communities had failed to meet for three years.
  • The committee noted that citizenship and civic engagement both featured in the government’s 2022 levelling up strategy. However, the committee argued the strategy should include greater investment in—and coordination of—citizenship education and civic engagement initiatives.
  • The Liaison Committee welcomed the establishment of the Domestic and Economic (Levelling Up) Cabinet Committee which would coordinate levelling up policies. However, the Liaison Committee recommended the government should publish more information on the cabinet committee’s remit. It also said it was “surprised” the cabinet committee did not include permanent members from more departments, given the cross-departmental nature of the levelling up strategy.

The recommendations in the report concerning citizenship education included the following:

  • The government should create a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from key stages 1–4. This had also been recommended by the Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement in its 2018 report. This proposals had been rejected previously by the government.
  • The government should set a target for having at least one trained citizenship teacher in every primary school. The committee said the government should also reinstate bursaries for citizenship teachers in schools.
  • The government should address discrepancies in the way Ofsted inspects citizenship teaching in schools. The committee said Ofsted was currently misinterpreting the government’s policy and assessment criteria.
  • Ofsted should conduct a full review of the current provision and quality of citizenship education in schools. The committee criticised proposals from Ofsted to assess citizenship education as part of its upcoming review of personal development, arguing this would not be sufficient.
  • The target audience for the national citizenship service (NCS) should be expanded from 16–17-year-olds to 11–18-year-olds. The committee also recommended that the NCS should continue its current practice of working in partnership with other organisations, including schools.

The committee welcomed the reforms made by the government to the life in the UK test since 2018. However, it said it still shared the previous Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement’s view that the test did not adequately support or effectively measure active citizenship, arguing not enough had been done to improve the test. The committee recommended the government should establish an advisory group to review the content of the test and its outcomes.

2. Government response to the committee’s report

The government published its response to the committee’s report on 9 June 2022. This included responses from Ofsted to those recommendations that fell within its remit.

In response to the committee’s recommendations on cross-government coordination and strategy, the government said that it was “reflecting on the best practical ways to deliver citizenship and civic engagement policy across government”. It did not say whether it would consider establishing a minister with responsibility for citizenship and civic engagement. However, it said that it would update the committee on its strategy in due course. At the time of writing, the government has yet to publish new proposals for improving cross-government coordination and strategy.

On the committee’s recommendations concerning citizenship education, the government said it had committed in its schools white paper, published in March 2022, to not make any changes to the national curriculum during the remainder of this parliament. It said that, while schools should be responsible for how pupils are taught, the Department for Education (DfE) was committed to supporting schools to enable them to teach “a high-quality citizenship education”. It said the DfE had published guidance to schools on various aspects of citizenship teaching. It also said it was currently reviewing its guidance on teaching online safety. The government said it did not intend to reverse its decision to end bursaries for citizenship trainee teachers. However, it said citizenship trainee teachers were eligible for a tuition fee loan and maintenance loans to support living costs.

The government did not accept the committee’s conclusion that Ofsted was misinterpreting its policy in relation to assessing citizenship teaching. It said it was satisfied with the current approach taken by Ofsted in assessing citizenship teaching in schools. Ofsted confirmed it currently assessed citizenship as part of its general evaluation of personal development in schools. However, it argued this did not mean inspectors were neglecting to set high standards for citizenship teaching in schools. Ofsted repeated its commitment to include a review of citizenship teaching as part of its wider review of personal development in schools.

The government said it did not intend to review the NCS’s royal charter in order to expand its existing remit. However, the government said it was supporting other organisations that worked with wider age groups, including expanding the number of schools participating in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. The government also said it would continue to support the NCS’s partnership working with other organisations.

The government defended the life in the UK test, arguing it ensured people seeking British citizenship were able to demonstrate “a sufficient knowledge of life in the UK”. The government confirmed it intended to set out plans to update the life in the UK handbook in the next 12 months. It also said it intended to engage with subject matter experts as part of this process. Subsequently, the government has stated that it intends to review the life in the UK handbook as part of wider nationality reforms. In February 2023, parliamentary under secretary at the Home Office, Lord Murray of Blidworth, said in response to a parliamentary question that the plans would be published in the first half of next year.

3. Potential inclusion of citizenship and civic engagement provisions in the Schools Bill

Citizenship and civic engagement in schools was debated in the House of Lords on 20 June 2022 during committee stage of the Schools Bill. Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench) tabled an amendment which would have revised the existing requirements on schools to teach “British values”, including establishing a new statutory definition of what would constitute the “values of British citizenship”. During the debate on this amendment, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Conservative), the former chair of the House of Lords Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement, criticised the government’s response to the Liaison Committee’s report. He said:

I suspect my noble friend the minister will not be surprised that I found the response to our follow-up report on citizenship and civic engagement disappointing, especially regarding the teaching of citizenship education. The tone was encouraging enough, but in too many cases the government sought to “encourage” and “expect” rather than mandate performance to take place.

The parliamentary under secretary of state at DfE, Baroness Barran, did not address Lord Hodgson’s criticism during her response to Lord Harries’ amendment. However, she confirmed the government did not intend to change the way citizenship and civic engagement are taught as part of the national curriculum. Following the debate, Lord Harries’ amendment was not moved formally and was not made to the bill.

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Cover image by Jonny Gios on Unsplash.