HC Deb 14 January 1999 vol 323 cc427-9
4. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

What plans he has to ensure that citizenship is taught in schools. [64039]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Charles Clarke)

We will ensure that citizenship has a key place in schools in the new century, drawing on the advice from the advisory group on education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools, chaired by Professor Bernard Crick, which is helping to inform the current review of the national curriculum.

Mr. Bradshaw

I am grateful for that reply. How does my hon. Friend respond to my constituent, Christopher Hopkins, aged 9, who wrote to me recently? He said: I would like to know if you were planning to put politics in the national curriculum, as I find it very interesting. Does my hon. Friend agree that if those in the younger generation are to have confidence in our political system and play an active role in it, they have to understand how it works? Will he immediately scotch rumours that Mr. Woodhead is trying to veto the sensible proposals to put citizenship into schools?

Mr. Clarke

Certainly, no one is trying to scotch or veto any proposals. We are taking advice from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and a wide range of organisations on the best way to put into effect the reforms that we are discussing. I agree very much with my hon. Friend's comments about the importance of teaching politics and the approach to political life and democracy in our schools. That is one reason why many politicians from all parties have supported the idea of teaching citizenship in some way.

Just to add another point, a primary school in my constituency is teaching philosophy. There has been a tremendous response because the interplay of ideas and arguments is such an important part of ensuring that children grow up to play a full part in society and in the community.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Does the Minister accept that perhaps the most important element of the teaching of citizenship is giving young people the thought that they can influence what happens in the world in which they are growing up? Will he encourage the growing number of schools that are taking seriously ideas from their pupils about the running of their schools and the work they can do in the community?

Mr. Clarke

I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. Let me take the opportunity to commend his work in developing youth parliaments and other approaches to the teaching of citizenship. Schools councils have a great deal to offer. Although we have no intention of making them a requirement in the curriculum, they have assisted children from a young age to address precisely the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) and the hon. Gentleman have raised.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

With the welcome use of referendums by the Government, will the Minister take heed of the importance of sixth formers and those reaching the end of their school careers being adequately informed about the issues on which they may have to vote? I refer in particular to entry into the single European currency and the Jenkins commission report on electoral reform.

Mr. Clarke

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. Referendums on issues such as she has raised are an important constitutional development that requires citizens to be as fully informed as possible of the implications of decisions that they are being asked to take, which include important decisions about economic and monetary union, proportional representation and electoral reform, and the issues on which there have already been votes in Scotland, Wales and London. That is one reason why developing within the curriculum the idea of strong citizenship will help to produce a more informed democracy and better quality decisions.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Is not citizenship just one of a range of new curriculum topics that Ministers want to impose on schools? When will they stop? There are a host of them, including "values" and "environmental awareness". When will the Government stop their remorseless flow of instructions and directives to teachers and schools—what the Secretary of State has just called partnership? Does not the Minister understand that the 322 communications sent from his Department to schools and LEAs last year represent an impossible burden which is distracting teachers from delivering the national curriculum and raising standards in schools?

Mr. Clarke

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments on citizenship. The reform and review of the national curriculum is exceptionally important to ensure that it best reflects current needs. As the hon. Gentleman said, the curriculum includes citizenship, sustainable development and personal, social and health education, because it is important that those issues be addressed. However, we are not imposing anything; we are undertaking a review and taking advice from a wide range of people.

I can only return to what I said earlier: some senior Conservative politicians acknowledge the need to examine the issues properly and would be rather shocked by the cavalier way in which the Opposition today simply dismiss their considerations.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is it not irresponsible of the shadow Minister to suggest that Parliament should have no interest in what happens in schools apart from teachers' pay and similar issues? Does my hon. Friend recognise the role that his Department can play together with right hon. and hon. Members so that when we examine new ways of conducting our business to ensure democracy in the Chamber, in Committee and in local government, the issues are better understood in schools and colleges of further and higher education?

Will my hon. Friend help those of us on the Modernisation Committee to look at new ways of strengthening the interface between the younger generation and the democracy of which we are proud to be members in this House?

Mr. Clarke

I strongly support what my hon. Friend has said. I was fortunate enough to see the parliamentary website—which has been developed by the education unit of this House—at the British educational technology exhibition at Olympia yesterday, and that does precisely what my hon. Friend mentioned. I played around with the site, and saw how it was presented and working. All those in this House who are developing such education, so that young people can understand the nature of our democracy, deserve credit and thanks, and I pay tribute to those working on such projects.