From the vast compendium of Michael Gove’s arrogant moments as education secretary one has been on my mind these last few weeks. He was never a fan of citizenship as a subject – the one that teaches children the rules of democracy – and, once in office, set out to slim the curriculum and get rid of “political fads”. You know, such as teaching young people the rules politicians must follow even when their plans are fading in front of them. (Cough.)
During a parliamentary question session in which Gove was supposed to give full and accurate answers, he was asked if the subject would be removed. He got to his feet, smiled, and simply said: “Citizenship runs through everything we do at the Department for Education”. Then he sat down.
Having reported throughout this era on Gove’s flagrant disrespect for almost every parliamentary convention, including answering questions in good faith, it has been no surprise to see him during the Brexit crisis telling parliament all sorts of extraordinary things – that he doesn’t know what “burner phones” are (this man worked as a journalist), that documents were out of date (when current), and so on.
Even when, as education secretary, Gove relented on stripping back citizenship – a subject taught in every other modern democracy (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) – he hobbled the subject anyway by exempting academies from having to follow the national curriculum. That’s more than 70% of secondary schools.
Furthermore, Gove downgraded the subject so that it fell outside the English baccalaureate (Ebacc) – a group of subjects, such as history and geography, given extra weight in the school league tables because Gove asserted they would better help students get into Russell group universities. Another thing that has since turned out to be untrue.
Other subjects also faced interference. All references to the European Union were scrapped from the geography curriculum, reportedly on the grounds that the EU is a political rather than a physical entity. No wonder the Northern Ireland negotiations are such an issue if our leaders can’t see how one is bound up with the other.
Of course, I understand why Gove finds the idea of politically literate civilians to be a problem. Every citizenship teacher faces the terrifying moment when, armed with the knowledge you’ve just given them, your pupils revolt about things that matter to them. A petition usually starts it. Soon it descends into silent protests in the canteen (always welcome) before becoming disruptive chanting and locking themselves to the school fence (not so great). The demands are usually less about “sovereignty” and more about overturning a mobile phone ban, or allowing girls to wear trousers as part of their uniform.
Most headteachers have greater emotional intelligence than the average government minister and recognise that teenagers grow from being listened to, and reasoned with, even if not always fully bowed to. Almost every school now allows girls to wear trousers, though most remain strict on mobile phones. Johnson, Gove and company could learn something from this ability to compromise.
Thankfully, Generation Z are taking political education into their own hands. Politics A-level is booming, with numbers so high that it’s now twice as popular as drama, four times more popular than classics, and – for the first time – has overtaken the numbers doing religious studies. GCSE citizenship also had a 10% boost last year.
In the end, then, no matter how inconvenient it is for some politicians, the will of young people is to become better informed about the rules governing their politics. Happily, Gove would never stand in the way of the will of the people. Not when citizenship runs through everything he does. (Cough.)
• This article was amended on 17 September 2019 because subjects in the English baccalaureate are given extra weight in school league tables, not extra points as an earlier version said.