Roscoe Lecture: David Blunkett


Lecture by David Blunkett

Lord Alton, David, High Sheriff, Lord Lieutenant of the County of Merseyside

I’m very pleased to join you this evening in sharing the opportunity of celebrating citizenship and of reflecting a little on it, of being in a position to share with you in a moment or two to answer questions as well about what faces us and how we can make the kind of progress nationally that you are endeavouring to make locally. I congratulate all those who have been involved with the Foundation here, the work that has gone on within the schools and the wider community and the commitment of John Moores University to the programme. It’s always good to be in Liverpool. My eldest son is at university here although he’s ensconced on the Isle of Man doing his third year in Marine Biology and I’m hoping to go out and see him in a couple of weeks. It’s always good to come to Liverpool because of the vibrance (sic) and the warmth and sometime the rumbustiousness of the community which I’ve experienced over many, many years, as they used to say on the Round The Horne programmes (for those who are as decrepit as I am). It’s always a pleasure to be here because, with that vibrancy comes a sense of community, of civic pride, of a belief in the commitment to community which is so easily lost but which is rarely engaged these days either here or across the country in terms of formalised democratic procedures. That’s why it’s so important, I think, to re-engage the debate with what we mean by citizenship, what it means for us and those around us and how we can relate the formal and the informal together.

Yesterday there was an article in The Sunday Times which sought to have a go at the whole concept of teaching citizenship, of actually daring, as Secretary of State, to want citizenship to be part of the curriculum. Anyone, everyone, should have a say in this, apparently except myself. Well, to my time here to celebrate what has been a lifetime commitment to citizenship, twenty-five years as a trustee of Community Service Volunteers, a member of the Speaker’s Commission on Citizenship under the former Speaker of the House of Commons, someone who’s not a Johnny-Come-Lately to citizenship but, like David Alton, has had a deep lifelong commitment to ensuring that we engage with each other and not just preach political slogans at each other. There are some very funny little stories which bring alive the importance of understanding what is going on in our politics and our citizenship around us; I met a nursery Head the other day who told me that while she was buttoning up the little duffle-coat of a four-year old, she took the risk of asking him who he thought the Prime Minister was and, without hesitation and with the kind of adenoidal response you get in both South Yorkshire and Liverpool, he said, “Toby Bear”. Well, he nearly got it right and I have to say that the Prime Minister was good enough to laugh when I told him about it as well.

It is important that we understand the formalities of what is happening around us but it is also important that we engage with it in all sorts of different ways. There was a time many moons ago that I thought that the only true engagement was people who were prepared to turn up to tedious meetings week after week in smoke-filled rooms. When I first joined the Labour Party there was water coming through the roof (incidentally, it made me decide that teachers shouldn’t have to teach with water coming through the roof), in circumstances where what was happening was inclined to turn you off politics and active citizenship rather than to turn you on. I now believe very strongly in the engagement in formal politics, in people playing a part in their civic community but I understand very well that for the majority of citizens, it will be the active engagement with each other that displays their commitment and caring, their active citizenship in their own lives. It’s about building from the foundations which all of us cherish, the way in which we understand that we are so much more when we work together as part of a strong community, supporting and enabling individuals to develop their talent.

It’s a very old saying that was actually brought alive recently, a year or two ago, by Hilary Clinton, that it takes a village to educate a child and of course without education the village itself is unlikely to be alive, vibrant and able to cope and it’s as true of a large city as it is of a village. The foundation on which we build is the family. The world that is constructed to make it safe is the community and the cement which holds it together is education – education not simply in terms of instilling the basics (crucial as that is) but education for the whole person, for recognising, as David Alton and I have discussed, that there is no conflict between teaching children to read and write or to be able to add up and do Maths to an acceptable level and the development of that holistic approach in teaching children about the world around them, in providing them with the commitment that will ensure a civilised and an acceptable society. There is no division between engaging children in creativity and a love of the arts and culture, in the ability to be able to share their talent and their imagination with others. In other words, the ladder of enlightenment is as important as the ladder of lifelong basic learning. The two must go hand in hand if we are to succeed as a society in the new century.

Tomorrow we may hear a little more about the way in which we need to modernise, to engage with the world of Information and Communication Technology, the avoidance of a new gap of the haves and have-nots in a knowledge-based, information age where understanding how to use and when not to use computers, of being computer literate, of being able to engage in drawing down information from the Web will be seen as a crucial life skill. And of course you can’t do it without basic education in terms of the ability to operate the equipment but, even more, you can’t do it without the ability to read and write and I just want to pay tribute tonight to Phil Redmond from Merseyside who has helped us with the development of the National Year of Reading and the commitment to Adult Literacy through the Brookie Basics programme and the work that he’s done.

It is a tremendous contribution in enabling people to take up their citizenship in full, to be able to engage in full for themselves and their family and for the community around them. For their family, for a successful community, for the development and worth of education, we need to put those elements together. We need to do so because, having a job, having some sense of security in an ever changing and insecure world, in the avoidance of the disintegration and fracturing of our society, we need to make education and citizenship work hand in hand.

Seventy-five percent of those on remand in Britain have a reading-age of ten or less. Let me repeat it; seventy-five percent of those on remand have a reading-age of ten or less. Now there are two conclusions you can draw. One is that we have the most ignorant and illiterate criminals in the world but the other is that illiteracy and lack of education of self-belief and self-expectation, of self-reliance, go hand in hand with criminal activity and alienation from our society, and we know the latter is true. We know that generational disadvantage is passed in a way that accelerates the downward trend. I read in the Daily Mail recently of a family on Reservoir Street here in Liverpool. It wasn’t one of the archetypal Daily Mail articles, it wasn’t intending to expose or have a go; but in the way it described the family where no-one worked, where older sisters and brothers of the one youngster who was still at school had disengaged from education and where there was a lack of expectation that that youngster himself would have the opportunity of success, transformed the life chances of every single one of them and the chance of the school being able to do the job. So in engaging with each other, actually supporting families in their development, in bringing alive the self-belief that it is possible for every youngster from whatever background to be able to thrive and to have a successful future is crucial to overcoming the cynicism that actually undermines, erodes and corrodes our society.

If there’s one thing that I could wish away, it is the cynics that erode every opportunity of changing the world. That is why the Foundation For Citizenship, it’s why the alliance that draws together a whole range of organisations in committing themselves to active citizenship is so crucial to overcoming that, so that from the very moment a child enters school, they believe in themselves but they are also committed to mutuality and to inter-dependence and to helping others.

An active, full, participative life is an active, full citizenship contribution. You have to feel part of, to have a stake in, to be valued by the community in which you live and work. To make that possible, we have to value each other, we have to develop self-reliance that is part of the glue of a community that knows that we can only succeed by doing it together. That is why the commitment to universal literacy, to the ability to share those goals is so important. I read all the theory when I was a student of politics many moons ago as a mature student at university – Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, later the adult educators like R H Tawney, Harold Silver. A commitment to adult education was ingrained in me because at night school and day release it took me six years to get to university where I found at that time less than ten percent of students made it to university. At that time you found that youngsters who you met there were no brighter than the people that you left behind on the council estate who never imagined that they would actually make it and be able to succeed in that way. Our task is to transform those expectations but also to understand that it isn’t simply about succeeding in formalised education. It’s about the change that we can bring about in the morality of politics and social activity. I’d love us to be able to debate, as we did at university, the morality of politics rather than political lack of morality which engages the media today. We don’t talk about political morality in terms of the policies and values that we seek to implement or which we challenge with each other. The political morality that is solely debated in this country today is illustrated best by people’s sexual proclivities or the borrowing of their friends’ money. Now, I’m of course not against debating where we are and what we do as politicians, but it would be nice to debate where we are going as a society so that through lifelong learning we can remove commitment to something that is broader than simply the immediate and the minor concerns that engage us. That is why I set up the Committee under Professor Bernard Crick. The accusation is that he’s an old professor of mine and it’s true, he is. He wrote all about citizenship and political literacy thirty years ago. In fact he got so disgruntled with undergraduates, when I was an undergraduate at Sheffield University, that he left to become Head of Politics at Birkbeck where it was mature, part-time students that he would meet. Those were the revolutionary days there, I’d say, not where students chanted at you about tuition fees but refused to take examinations at all on the grounds that they crowded out the real educative things that they wanted to do – so I’m an old codger when it comes to the revolutionary politics. But Bernard Crick drew together a whole range of people including those who take a very different view of politics to myself, such as Kenneth Baker, and carried a unanimous report about the way forward and the way in which we need to engage with learning outcomes, not with the dead hand of enforcing on people any particular pattern but the learning outcomes that are required in order to ensure that we have a commitment in this area.

The three key areas he talked about were social and moral responsibility: learning about ???? yes, but also about rules, authority, responsible decision making and debate – the ability to settle our differences in an acceptable fashion. He talked about community involvement, about becoming helpfully engaged in the life and concerns of the community, of active citizenship, of being part of that very lifeblood of the neighbourhood. About political literacy, not party political literacy, but the development of skills and knowledge and the attributes of having an enquiring mind, of being able to negotiate, to be able to debate, to resolve competing interests without violence or thuggery. Creating a society where the morality of the individual, the commitment to the community, the political literacy of being able to operate in that society were able to come together. It is my intention that we should take this forward.

We will be saying more in three or four weeks time about the consultation of the Curriculum from the year 2000. I want to make it clear that there is no question of squeezing out other subjects such as religious education or history, none at all. We are talking about a synergy of bringing subject areas together, of engaging the different disciplines, of being able to engage people’s minds in looking at one society and one part of our history, of looking at spirituality and being able to engage with what’s important in people’s lives, of understanding world religions and what it means for us in our community. We are talking about engaging with a world where, God willing in the future, we will never have the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence repeated, where the unacceptable murder of Philip Lawrence had to evoke the commitment to renewing an understanding of decency and citizenship in our education service.

I want to say a word or two about the Stephen Lawrence and the Inquiry this evening. It seems to me that if we are not to engage in angst and gesturism, then it’s crucial that we debate the aftermath of the Inquiry sanely. We don’t want to go back to inventing anti-racist units in order to irritate people, we want real action for change that engages with people’s minds and attitudes and the nature of the society in which they operate. Of course unemployment will be crucial. Of course education and the foundations that need to be laid in working with families at the earliest possible juncture will be critical. Of course creating a society in which people can operate in an acceptable fashion will matter but it will also be crucial that we engage young people at the earliest possible stage with an understanding of the world they live in and the treatment of others around them. I learned a long time ago about the importance of tolerance but I want to say tonight that, in tackling racism, tolerance is not enough. Tolerance is of those things which irritate us, which we don’t like but, as civilised human beings, we are prepared to tolerate in each other – the mannerisms, the actions that all of us have to learn to live with with each other because we are all full of them. That isn’t how we overcome racism because we don’t want people simply to be tolerant of each other because of race or colour; we want them to understand that they don’t have to be, need to be, or in the future ever be talking of tolerance with each other because it simply would not occur to someone in a civilised society to feel that they needed to be because of the colour of someone’s skin. It’s as deep as that and it’s as difficult as that. And that is what we are trying to do in engaging with the broader programme of citizenship in our schools, colleges and our society. We can do quite a lot by illustration.

The critical nature of mentoring is taking off. It could, and hopefully will, be seen as a trend – from mentoring children in school, from giving the opportunity of people seeing role models working in practice, of engaging business and commerce so that people can be released from work to do it; citizenship programmes, such as Millennium Volunteers which we are developing at the moment with £45 million of government money. It can be with university students actually being prepared to give their time and work in schools. It can be as simple as hearing a child read or it can be as complicated as working with a young offender in difficult circumstances to work through their programmes with them. Whatever form it takes, it is a demonstration of active citizenship and it will enable us, whether we are tackling racism or vandalism or tackling disengagement and alienation to make real progress. And I can tell you that progress is being made, in simple illustrations of a change in our society. In reducing the divide we are beginning to succeed by working together. Our schools are succeeding in terms of the equality of opportunity of different races.

I’ll just give you one or two statistics. This year 47% of white youngsters actually achieved 5 high grade GCSEs. It was only 29% of black youngsters, but it was only 23% of them the year before. It was only 33% of Bangladesh youngsters, but it was only 25% the year before. It was 53% of Indian youngsters, and it was only 48% the year before. It was 61% of Chinese and South East Asian youngsters, as it was the year before, so they outstrip all of us. There is progress being made in our schools. There is a change taking place and so there is in our communities. We’ve a very long way to go but there are now a million more families with someone in work than there was three years ago. There are 400,000 people who work compared with just under two years ago. We’ve halved youth unemployment. We’ve an enormous challenge in the most disadvantaged areas here in Liverpool and in my home city and area of Sheffield and South Yorkshire, two of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, designated for Objective One status in the European Union’s new grant funding round.

But if we are going to do it properly, it isn’t simply a top-down government programme. Good as the New Deal is, and I’m responsible for it, it won’t solve the problems of the world. It will help. It should start in working with families from the moment a child is born, engaging again volunteers of the non-statutory sector will make a difference but on its own it’s a government programme and it won’t change the world. What will change the world is communities developing their own capacity to cope. It’s called capacity building now, it used to be called community development when I was a lad. Social entrepreneurship used to be called community leadership. I don’t mind what they call it; it just makes the challenge of spelling in schools more difficult. It doesn’t matter what we call it, it’s about communities and individuals taking hold of their own life but being able to do so with the support of others. I think it’s a doctrine that encompasses all sorts and no sorts of political ideology. It can engage people who, if they sat down in a pub or after church, would argue with each other, but in committing themselves in the community actually share a similar objective. That is why, I believe, it is so crucial that we get it right. It’s the holistic approach I described earlier is writ large in terms of what we do in our education system for children and in adult education. We can do it. It is being done. It’s bringing neighbourhoods alive and what it needs is the active support of those of us who have resources and structures and influence (not power), influence, at our disposal. That is why, as a lifelong committed person wanting to ensure that others can take control of their lives and have a future built on their own self-confidence, I have every intention of making it work.

I just want to finish by saying this. Those who are frightened of these issues, those who believe that there is such a lack of confidence in our democracy, the strength of our community and the ability of each of us as individuals to be able to take on that challenge – those who would like to allow only the elite to make decisions or to engage in political debate or who are frightened of the big issues of the day reaching those who they believe at the moment are not capable of coping with it – those people not only live in the world of a bygone era, but they also live in a dreamworld where they disengage the millions in order to ensure that their particular view of the world isn’t challenged. Well, I don’t mind being challenged day in day out and I think if it’s challenged by people who have underpinned their ability to be able to cope with those differences by actually having already learned how to solve problems sensibly, how to develop differences equally, how to treat each other fairly, then we’ve got a society that’s worth living in and I’m grateful for the opportunity of expressing it this evening.