On 7 September 2023, the House of Lords will consider the following:

Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat) to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that life skills and citizenship are taught in primary and secondary schools.

1. What provision currently exists for the teaching of citizenship and life skills in schools?

In England, the aims of the current national curriculum for key stages 3 and 4 on citizenship, which must be followed by local authority maintained schools but not academies or free schools, are to ensure that all pupils:

  • acquire a sound knowledge and understanding of how the United Kingdom is governed, its political system and how citizens participate actively in its democratic systems of government
  • develop a sound knowledge and understanding of the role of law and the justice system in our society and how laws are shaped and enforced
  • develop an interest in, and commitment to, participation in volunteering as well as other forms of responsible activity, that they will take with them into adulthood
  • are equipped with the skills to think critically and debate political questions, to enable them to manage their money on a day-to-day basis, and plan for future financial needs

This curriculum was introduced in 2013 and has not been modified since that time. There is also a non-statutory framework for citizenship for key stages 1 and 2 that schools are not required to follow. This framework focuses on broader concepts such as learning right from wrong and how to articulate opinions.

Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education is a non-statutory subject. However, the Department for Education states that “(PSHE) education is an important and necessary part of all pupils’ education” which all schools should teach, drawing on good practice.

As such, the department allows schools to decide how to deliver PSHE education. It states:

To allow teachers the flexibility to deliver high-quality PSHE we consider it unnecessary to provide new standardised frameworks or programmes of study. PSHE can encompass many areas of study. Teachers are best placed to understand the needs of their pupils and do not need additional central prescription.

The approach taken by the devolved governments to different areas of education including citizenship and life skills is explored in a recent House of Commons Library briefing paper, ‘Comparing the school curriculum across the UK’ (13 July 2023).

2. House of Lords Citizenship and Civic Engagement Committee inquiry (2017–18)

In the first half of the 2017–19 parliamentary session, an inquiry by the House of Lords Citizenship and Civic Engagement Committee examined citizenship and civic engagement in the UK, considering issues including citizenship teaching in England. 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 policies on civic engagement and citizenship. On the teaching of citizenship education, the report stated:

[W]e have found that citizenship education, which should be the first great opportunity for instilling and developing our values, encouraging social cohesion, and creating active citizens has been neglected. Often it is subsumed into individual development which, whilst undoubtedly important, is not the same as learning about the political and social structure of the country, how it is governed, how laws are made and how they are enforced by an independent judiciary. Nor does it offer an opportunity of practising civic engagement in schools, local communities and beyond. The decline in citizenship education has a number of causes: the revision of the national curriculum in 2013, the fact that academies are in any case not required to follow it, the low esteem in which the subject appears to be held, the decrease in the numbers of trained teachers and the corresponding fall in the numbers taking citizenship GCSE.

The committee recommended that the government should “re-prioritise the subject, creating a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from primary to the end of secondary education, and set a target which will allow every secondary school to have at least one trained teacher”.

In its response to the committee, the government noted that citizenship was part of the national curriculum at key stages 3 and 4 (and therefore compulsory in maintained secondary schools) and that primary schools can also choose to teach citizenship at key stages 1 and 2. Is said that the national curriculum was “comprehensively reviewed and then published in 2013” and noted that, in April 2018, ministers had committed to making “no further reforms to the national curriculum in this parliament”.

On teacher training, the government added that it did not impose a limit on the number of trainee teachers in citizenship that were recruited for initial teacher training and it was for head teachers to decide how to best deliver their curriculum through the effective use of teachers in their schools.

3. House of Lords Liaison Committee follow-up report on citizenship and civic engagement (2022)

The Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement was an ad hoc committee and ceased to exist after it reported in 2018. In its place, the House of Lords Liaison Committee conducted a follow-up inquiry on citizenship and civic engagement that focused on three areas, one of which was again the subject of citizenship education.

The Liaison Committee’s report, ‘The ties that bind: Citizenship and civic engagement in the 21st century—follow-up report’ was published in March 2022. The recommendations in the report concerning citizenship education included the following:

  • The committee repeated the earlier committee’s recommendation that the government should create a statutory entitlement to citizenship education from key stages 1 to 4.
  • Similarly, the committee again recommended that 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 to 17-year-olds to 11 to 18-year-olds. The committee also recommended that the NCS should continue its current practice of working in partnership with other organisations, including schools.

4. Government response to the committee and the schools white paper (2022)

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.

On the committee’s recommendations concerning citizenship education, the government said it had recommitted in its schools white paper, published in March 2022, to not make any changes to the national curriculum during the remainder of this current parliament. The white paper itself made one reference to citizenship education where it states that the government “will build on our high-quality citizenship education by supporting the National Youth Guarantee, promoting volunteering and expanding access to the Duke of Edinburgh Award and cadet schemes”.

The government’s response to the Liaison Committee added 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.

5. Schools Bill 2022–23 and potential inclusion of citizenship and civic engagement provisions

Citizenship and civic engagement in schools was debated in the House of Lords on 20 June 2022 during committee stage of the Schools Bill 2022–23.

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.

Baroness Barran, a parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department for Education, 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.

The Schools Bill itself has not made further progress since report stage in the House of Lords in July 2022. This is reportedly due to a change of the government’s priorities.

6. Debate in the House of Lords on the Liaison Committee’s report (April 2023)

The Liaison Committee’s findings and recommendations were debated in the House of Lords on 17 April 2023.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, the chair of the original citizenship committee, said that he feared that the government remained inconsistent in its support for citizenship education. He added:

To redress the increasing neglect of this subject, they need to give sustained, consistent support to citizenship education. In particular, that means a stable policy framework. Too often, our committee found evidence of what we called “initiativeitis”—individual, unconnected policy ideas set in train by a particular minister, many of which were not tracked or followed up to assess relative success or failure. Therefore, a key recommendation of our first report was the need to create this stable framework to give consistent support to this subject. To date, I am afraid, I do not think that our committee is clear that this has been achieved or accepted by the government.

Lord Hodgson added that a second major cause of concern about the government’s commitment was “the downgrading of the role of specific training of teachers in this subject”. He said it was “generally recognised” that the number of teachers in this area has halved in the past few years. He noted that the government no longer provided the numbers in training, and citizenship education bursaries were no longer available.

Lord Hodgson also raised the response of Ofsted to the committee’s recommendations and those made by the follow-up report. He said:

[O]ur follow-up report made a number of recommendations at paragraphs 72 to 77 about Ofsted’s work. It is no exaggeration to say that Ofsted rejected the lot. It persistently mixes up citizenship education with PSHE—personal, social, health and economic education. In truth, they are completely different […] PSHE is about “me” and how I am developing as a person, and a very important issue that is, but citizenship education is about “we”—how our society works, how we all benefit from it and how we must contribute to it—and therefore has a completely different focus. Ofsted’s disregard for citizenship education is further evidenced by the fact that it does not undertake any deep dives in this subject, as it does with other policy areas.

Several other members made similar points, particularly regarding the importance attached to citizenship education and concern over teacher numbers.

Responding for the government, Baroness Barran said that a high-quality citizenship curriculum “gives extraordinary opportunities for pupils to understand their place in the world, in their local communities, in their country and globally”. She said that citizenship is an important national curriculum at key stages 3 and 4, and all schools were encouraged to teach it as part of a broad and balanced curriculum.

She added that there had been a 5.9% increase in the number of GCSE candidates taking citizenship studies in the summer of 2022, compared to 2021. In turn this was up 19.5% from 2018, to just under 21,500 students. On teacher numbers, she did concede that these had decreased but only “slightly”, from 4,451 to 4,152 in 2022.

Baroness Barran also pointed to the Oak National Academy, which became an arm’s-length body in September 2022, which she said provided adaptable and optional support for schools. She said new curriculum packages were being developed by the Oak National Academy, including in relation to citizenship, so that every school could be confident that there was a high-quality and well-sequenced curriculum that it could follow if it wished.

On citizen teaching, she said that the government expected citizenship to be considered a significant part of Ofsted’s routine inspections. She said that the department of education was satisfied that the current approach “achieves this in a proportionate way”. She added that Ofsted had confirmed that evidence on citizenship was considered in every inspection, including the extent to which schools were preparing pupils for life in modern Britain effectively, through relationship education, citizenship and the promotion of fundamental British values.

7. Calls for improved teaching of life skills in schools

Several organisations and commentators have also called for the teaching of life skills such as financial literacy in schools to be improved.

In 2021, the All-party parliamentary group (APPG) on financial education for young people reported that “only one in three children currently receive any form of financial education at primary school”. The APPG claimed that this was a contributory factor in large numbers of young people not feeling confident planning for their financial future when they got older.

These findings were cited by Carly Sandy and Andrew Hebden at the Bank of England in 2022, who noted that the non-statutory status of PSHE “has long been a concern for those who make the case that more prominence needs to be given to financial education in schools”. The authors added:

There is little doubt among teachers and parents that financial capability can be a highly effective tool in helping young people navigate key life transitions and support good decision-making. And navigating that terrain is likely to become ever more complex in a digital age. The benefits of financial capability in this context extend beyond the ability to deal with day-to-day financial matters, to employment prospects, mental health and self-confidence.

These findings are echoed by the London Institute of Banking and Finance, who contend that financial literacy gives young people the confidence to make “smart financial choices”. It said that its research had found that young people showed an interest in learning more about tax, budgeting, and debt management. They also wanted more information about financial products, such as credit cards, pensions, mortgages and loans.

The Money and Pensions Service is an arm’s length body that works to improve financial education in schools, through the following means:

  • supporting the development of and access to financial education tools and services
  • funding the delivery of financial education programmes, to test new approaches and increase the availability of interventions that work
  • undertaking and promoting research to improve our understanding of children and young people’s financial education needs and their financial wellbeing
  • running and contributing to networks that support the development of financial education tools and sharing of best practice

According to data released by the Money and Pensions Service in 2022, “only 48% of the UK’s children and young people receive a meaningful financial education”. They also contended that existing evidence showed the importance of starting early to develop positive financial behaviours, particularly before the age of seven. In addition, they said that children and young people in vulnerable circumstances, or who have unique needs or characteristics, have the strongest association with poorer financial education. They contend that future financial education for children should make use of the following tools:

  • Storytelling is an effective way for teachers to deliver financial education for children under seven.
  • Tailored and flexible resources are key when designing financial education for specific groups to ensure they are engaging, appropriate and relevant.
  • Digital delivery must be considered as a key component of delivering financial education.
  • Build sufficient lead-in time for financial education to be incorporated into existing structures and for teachers and practitioners to familiarise and plan their financial education delivery. For schools, ideally two terms are needed.

The government has not committed to making financial education or other elements of PSHE statutory parts of the curriculum in primary school, or specifying what skills should be taught in secondary schools beyond the existing national curriculum guidelines. However, in January 2023 Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a commitment to making numeracy “a central objective of the education system” and to have all children studying some form of maths to 18. To support this, the government announced a range of measures in April 2023. These included an expansion of the ‘Mastering number’ programme, which helps children in the first years of primary school master the basics of arithmetic, including number bonds and times tables.

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Cover image from gov.uk.