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8th Feb 2021 3:40pm Blogs

Political literacy or a subterfuge to escape nasty politics

Blog and model give clarity to debate.

Blog – Dr John Lloyd

So wrote the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick architect of the Citizenship curriculum introduced into secondary schools in 2002. I worked with Bernard at the Department for Education and Employment where he was David Blunkett’s Special Adviser for Citizenship. Working with David Kerr (NFER) and Liz Moorse (QCA) on the implementation of Citizenship education in schools and the associated programmes of study much of what the 1998 Crick Report argued for is now being reinvented by the recently formed APPG for Political Literacy that wants all pupils across the UK to receive political literacy lessons.

However, we have real problem if by political literacy we mean, as Cat Smith Labour’s Shadow Minister for Young People and APPG co-Vice Chair argues, it is about ‘engaging young people in voting and broadly the democratic process’. Such an approach has more to do with civics rather than political literacy within a citizenship curriculum that helps young people to be able to protect and extend their rights, to participate in their communities democratically and to be socially and morally responsible. In short it is important that they learn to think and act politically. To this end it is crucial that the APPG clearly considers and defines what they mean by political literacy. I offer the following model which I hope helps to give some clarity to the debate.

A theoretical model to show the relationship between Citizenship knowledge, social control, empowerment and teaching and learning.


By compliant, I mean all of those activities and teaching that a school may undertake that, wittingly or not, reinforce societal norms as reflected in governance, the judiciary, the courts, laws and policing. This would be ‘civics’ and described as institutional.


By moral, I mean all of those activities and teaching that lead to the socialisation of pupils through the school’s systems such as assemblies, rules, sanctions and rewards, where school councils are token and participation minimal. I would further describe the emphasis in these schools as behavioural.

Politically Literate

By politically literate, I mean all of those activities that lead to pupils developing the skills and competencies to increasingly engage in debates on democracy, rights, justice and to become involved. I call this political.


By participative, I mean all pupils being involved and participating in the school through class councils, school councils, voting in school elections, becoming involved in the school and its wider community through projects and, encouraging pupils to think and act politically. It can be described as school culture and I call cultural.

For me the real danger is that schools lapse into reinforcing the knowledge or taught areas of citizenship rather than enabling young people to debate controversial issues and to take positive action safely through participation. Political literacy is an outcome of being active in this way whereas ‘civics’ as Bernard Crick said, is usually a ‘subterfuge to escape nasty politics’ and makes an interesting and lively subject dull, safe and factual.

Social Empowerment or social control: an exploration of pupil’s prior knowledge of citizenship, and its application to appropriate teaching and learning. John R Lloyd.  Ph.D. University of Birmingham 2006 

Dr John Lloyd
Former Citizenship Adviser 2000-2006 DfEE