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John Dudley

Citizenship, Political Liberalism and the National Curriculum

I shall maintain in this essay that the civic education proposed in the new National Curriculum subject called Citizenship is not in harmony with the educational aims and principles stated in The Education Reform Act, 1988, in which the National Curriculum itself was established. I shall argue further that the present institutional arrangements for the whole of education are contrary to the spirit of the civic education outlined in Citizenship.

To pursue the argument I shall draw on John Rawls’ insight that, in a modern democracy such as that in the UK, the idea of a democratic state with a single generally agreed moral or religious doctrine is no longer useful. In Political Liberalism he writes about this notion:

That conception of social unity is excluded by the fact of reasonable pluralism; it is no longer a political possibility for those who accept the constraints of liberty and toleration of democratic institutions. (p.201)

He uses the notion of justice as fairness to indicate how the state may deal justly with its citizens in a pluralist society. He defines justice as fairness in terms of two principles of justice. The first is that all people must have the same political rights and liberties. The second principle is that of equality of opportunity. Rawls then restricts the sphere of influence of these principles to that of political, social and economic institutions. This position he calls ‘political liberalism’.

He maintains that this political liberalism should be seen as a freestanding moral system applicable only to political, social and economic institutions. This is somewhat difficult to swallow if only in terms of exactly how this limited liberalism differs from a universal or comprehensive liberalism. Nevertheless, his central claim that the democratic state, in a pluralist society, must maintain fair treatment of, for example, different religious groups is a strong one. It is most unlikely that a government established on the principles of a particular religious creed can be seen to be operating fairly. Political liberalism is thus an attempt to provide a theoretical framework to enable the democratic state to operate, and be seen to operate, fairly in a pluralist society.

Rawls defines political liberalism in terms of justice as fairness:

Justice as fairness honours, as far as it can, the claims of those who wish to withdraw from the modern world in accordance with the injunctions of their religion, provided only that they acknowledge the principles of the political conception of justice and appreciate its political ideals of person and society (p.200)

Inside political, social and economic institutions all social groups are to be treated equally in a fair and just manner with equal access, equal opportunity and equal rights. Outside them the competing notions of the good must be left to thrive. The prescriptions of religion, for example, must be treated tolerantly both as guides to individual conduct and as recipes for living a good life. On this basis, I maintain, therefore, that the state, in a pluralist society, cannot have an established religion. If the state is to be neutral then it must be secular.

An examination of the programme of study for Citizenship reveals a political liberal origin. In the foreword to the Secretary of State for Education says,

Equality of opportunity is one of a broad set of common values and purposes which underpin the school curriculum and the work of schools. These also include a commitment to………the diversity in our society…

He continues,

Education in citizenship and democracy will provide coherence in the way in which all pupils are helped to develop a full understanding of their roles and responsibilities as citizens in a modern democracy.

The model citizen here is one who becomes a fully co-operating member of society who will ‘honour fair terms of social co-operation’ with religious and moral doctrines other than his own. Further inspection of the syllabus for Citizenship provides further evidence of political liberalism. In the commentary attached to the programme of study for key Stage 4 Citizenship (14-16 year-olds) one finds the following (my emphasis):

During key stage 4 pupils continue to study, think about and discuss topical political, spiritual, moral social and cultural issuesÉ
They study the legal, political, religious, social, constitutional and economic systemsÉ
They develop knowledge skills and understanding in these areas through, for example, learning more about fairness, social justice, respect for democracy and diversity at school, local and national and global levelÉ

These aims are certainly very clear. The assumption is that pupils will learn about the mechanisms of the political, social and economic processes and will learn to support just institutions and to give one another justice. The intention here is an education to bring about a consensual view based upon equality of treatment (fairness and social justice) in a pluralist society (diversity). In Political Liberalism one reads the following:

We try to answer the question of childrenÕs education entirely within the political conception. SocietyÕs concern with their education lies in their role as future citizens, and so in such essential things as their acquiring the capacity to understand the public culture and to participate in its institutions, in their being economically independent and self supporting members of society over a complete life and in their developing political virtues, all this from within a political point of view. (p.200)

Clearly, those who framed the Citizenship programme of study had read their Rawls. Thus, Citizenship could be called a Political Liberal Education (PLE). I shall now identify two ways in which this political liberalism is at odds with the national curriculum which is applicable to state schools. I shall also identify, thirdly, the manner in which Citizenship is at odds with state arrangements for the whole of education – not just the maintained sector.

1. The National Curriculum – A Comprehensive Liberal Education

The National Curriculum is imbued with the spirit of comprehensive liberalism. It could be called a comprehensive liberal education (CLE). Comprehensive liberalism, particularly its traditional English version, has characteristics which differ from those of political liberalism. These differences are such that the educational aims and principles derived from them are, if not contradictory, then incompatible.

Comprehensive liberalism is a term which Rawls uses to describe a universal doctrine of personal autonomy and liberty. In the case of the English educational tradition it has a special relevance. There is a tradition, bearing the name of, ‘liberal education’ stretching back to the notion of the well-read gentleman. It is that of the liberally educated citizen who approaches life in a rational, not to say critical, way. Such a citizen makes informed life choices. The knowledge and skills to do this are provided by the education programme. The education required for this is certainly one in which the values of autonomy and individualism are paramount. It is exemplified in the National Curriculum Statement of Values ‘commonly agreed across the whole of society’ as follows (There are four other points) (my emphasis):

The Self
We value ourselves as unique human beings capable of spiritual, moral, intellectual and physical growth and development. On the basis of these values we should,
* clarify the meaning of our lives and decide, on the basis of this, how we believe that our lives should be lived
* take responsibility, within our capabilities, for our own lives.

This is comprehensive liberalism. It is an all-embracing approach applied to all aspects of life in the tradition of Kant and Mill. In the comprehensive liberal view the good life is the examined life, where reflection, rationality and tolerance lead to conduct. The products of a CLE and a PLE could be hard to separate except that the PLE educated person might be expected to honour equality of opportunity and fair treatment between cultures but also to understand that some groups are willing to accept the prescription of moral codes. The identification of the difference between a CLE and a PLE in these terms is not, however, necessary for this argument. What is necessary is to indicate how the CLE in the National Curriculum works against Citizenship.

The CLE educated model citizen acts fairly in his dealings with political, social and economic institutions but he also expects to make up his own mind about, for example, his religious beliefs and his economic actions. This view might indeed be endorsed by a majority of citizens in the UK. But not by all.

If the state is to deal fairly with competing ideas of the good, it must not endorse comprehensive liberalism of this nature because it is only one in a competing field of notions of the good and the good life. For some groups the conduct of the good life is not chosen by the freethinking individual but may well be prescribed by a set of ordinances derived from religious texts.

Thus the commonly agreed values in English and Welsh society, assumed in the above quotation, are not commonly agreed at all. Certain religious groups accept prescriptive moral codes without question. Therefore, if the state programme of education emphasises the autonomous, critical thinking individual, then this clashes with cultures which emphasise prescriptive moral doctrines. Furthermore the dominant position of the state in legislative matters means that legislation is thus biased in favour of a particular moral code, in this case that of comprehensive liberalism.

Thus, for the purpose of this essay it is clear that the general assumption of values in the National Curriculum is that of a CLE. This does not sit easily with the PLE of Citizenship.

2. The National Curriculum – a commitment to Christian religious education.

The second way in which the National Curriculum is at odds with Citizenship lies in the requirement for religious education. Christianity is given a dominant position. This strikes at the very heart of the cultural parity of esteem proposed in Citizenship.

The Education Act 1988 defines the main aims of education in its maintained schools. On the first page of the act one finds the following (my emphasis):

2. (1) The curriculum of every maintained school shall comprise a basic curriculum which includes
(a) provision for religious education for all registered pupils at the school:

A few pages later the nature of this religious commitment appears (my emphasis):

6. (1) Subject to section 9 of this Act, all pupils in attendance at a maintained school shall on each school day take part in an act of collective worship.

And then;

7. (1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, in the case of a county school the collective act of worship required in the school by section 6 of this Act shall be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.

The act clearly spells out the state commitment to Christianity. This part of the act is actually more honoured in the breach than the observance but this is not the point here. When judged from the theoretical perspective of political education in a multicultural society it fails the test of fairness. The state is not neutral in this matter. The institutions of state education are not neutral. People with competing views of the good life will certainly find this education system unfair. Christianity has been given a pre-eminent position. This is hardly the way to promote the values of inter-cultural parity of esteem, toleration and fair treatment.

Thus the National Curriculum, viewed from the perspective of its newest subject, Citizenship, can be seen to be based upon the assumption of some contrary principles. On the one hand the comprehensive liberal view of the individual and on the other the bias towards Christianity do not meet the rational demands of a political liberal education as outlined in Citizenship.

3. The State maintains most schools (maintained schools) and regulates all of them (the maintained and the private). It therefore legitimises two parallel education systems (a bi-lateral system).

In moving to a conclusion, I shall note a further set of weaknesses, relative to Citizenship, in the legislative and institutional arrangements for education. This is the third way in which Citizenship is actually at odds not just with the National Curriculum but is at odds with the whole national system of education.

Not all children are educated within the state system. There are numerous private schools. Many of these schools are fee paying. One could argue that this is an excellent example of the neutrality of the state. (Don’t like our schools? Go to one of your own.) But this will not do because the arrangement does not pass the test of “justice as fairness” which demands equal access to all social and political institutions. This is a significant point but it is not is the main thrust of my argument.

The main point I make here is that the state recognises these private schools. Not only does it recognise them, it legislates for them. There are state regulations governing what is to be taught in these private schools. The state exerts control over these schools. There are state inspections of these schools. A private school could be closed by the state if it does not comply with the regulations. I conclude therefore that the state has legitimised two school systems – the maintained and the private. But the legal requirements for the two systems are different. For example, the curriculum for private schools is hardly defined except in a very general way. They do not have to teach the detailed National Curriculum required of the state sector.

To make the point clearer I will contrast the requirements for a civic education in the two systems. On the one hand we have Citizenship for the maintained sector with its detailed programme of study with aims, objectives and content, some of which have been illustrated above. On the other hand the regulations governing private schools contain the following brief reference as follows (my emphasis):

Spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils
2. The spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils at the school meets the standards if the school promotes principles which...
d) assist pupils to acquire an appreciation of and respect for their own and other cultures in a way that promotes tolerance and harmony between different cultural traditions.

Thus to meet the legal requirements for civic education, the private school is to ‘promote the principles’. It is not required to do this in any specific way. What does one conclude here? Is it that in the eyes of the state, these pupils do not need the detailed education specified in Citizenship. Are they assumed already to be aware of all the issues and institutions involved? Do these pupils not need really need such an education? These questions spring to mind but both the questions and the answers do not matter for purposes of the argument here. The point is that the state is legitimising and regulating two different systems of civic education. In any terms this is neither equality of access nor is it fair treatment. Furthermore, it is certainly counter to the spirit of Citizenship.

Thus, where Citizenship is concerned the National Curriculum lacks unity of purpose and principle. An attempt has been made to graft a PLE onto a CLE system which also has a strong religious bias. Furthermore, the state, by providing a legal framework and a regulatory process for private education, has invested its authority into two parallel systems with different requirements.

To conclude I maintain that aims of Citizenship, while they are worthy, run counter to the National Curriculum and wider educational arrangements in at least four ways:

First, the educational aims and principles behind the National Curriculum emphasise comprehensive liberalism and Christianity in all areas of life. This is inimical to the spirit of political liberalism contained in Citizenship which emphasises social unity in diversity. Second, Christianity is enshrined as a pre-eminent part of the curriculum. The curriculum is thus not secular and the state cannot be regarded as a neutral legislator for all cultures. Third, the National Curriculum does not apply to all pupils. Pupils do not receive the same civic education. Fourth, the institutions are not freely available in terms of fair competition although both systems are state controlled.

If, therefore, equality of opportunity is indeed

One of a broad set of common values and purposes which underpin the school curriculum and the work of the school

as the Secretary of State claims, then I submit that both our current National Curriculum and our current institutional arrangements are not in line with this value, and that, therefore, the aims of Citizenship are unlikely to be realised.


RAWLS, J. (1996) Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, New York, Chicago, Chichester
Education Reform Act 1988: Secretary of State’s Preface and opening sections
National Curriculum Values 2002
Citizenship, Programme of Study Key Stage 4