By Harry Thompson, an MA Political Communications student at Cardiff University who sits on Welsh Labour’s Executive Committee
Devolved democracy in Wales is in ill health. This will come as no surprise to the few who closely follow devolved proceedings in Wales. Awareness of the roles the devolved institutions play in delivering and setting the budgets and agendas for public services is notoriously low. A poll released on St David’s Day in 2017 found that only 60 percent of voters in Wales knew that the Welsh Government had responsibility for the National Health Service, with 30 percent of voters believing it to be run by the UK Government. The NHS is arguably the jewel in the crown of the devolved Welsh settlement, consuming over half of the Welsh budget and a good deal of the headlines. If only just over half of Welsh voters are aware that responsibility for running the NHS lays in Wales, there is unlikely to be widespread awareness about the policy divergences NHS Wales takes, or the characters involved in setting them. This is unlikelier still for less prominent policy areas.
The idea of an informed citizenry is fundamental to democratic theory, but it matters in practice too. If voters in Wales are unaware of who runs their public services and how they are run, how can they be expected to choose the direction they take? And if ownership of public services is predicated on democratic legitimacy and the public providing leadership at the ballot box, can they even be considered a truly public service, in that they are fundamentally owned and run by the public?
This idea of the public providing leadership raises concerns about turnout rates at elections to the National Assembly for Wales, too. The number of those who choose to exercise their right to elect the people who run their health, education, transport systems, and more, has remained stubbornly low. In fact, the 46 percent who turned out to elect the first Assembly, with its limited powers, fell in the 2016 election to a mere 45.3 percent. This is clearly not due to a widespread belief in the fallacy of voting, as just a year later 68.5 percent turned out to vote in the elections to the House of Commons. If we look at Wales as a national parliament on a comparative basis, the results do not make for pretty reading. Adding the elections to the National Assembly for Wales in 2016 to the Pew Research Center’s international comparison of turnout rates, Wales has a lower turnout than every country involved in study save Switzerland , a special case due to its famed system of direct democracy. Wales pales in comparison to other low population countries such as Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark, which achieve turnout rates of 80 to 90 percent.
There is, then, a mounting body of evidence to suggest that the Welsh people have not been properly equipped with the tools to adequately engage with devolved institutions, and this needs to be looked on as a policy failure. The media in Wales has been subject to academic and political scrutiny over its role in informing Welsh voters, and the National Assembly for Wales has also demonstrated a willingness to reach out to people in Wales about its functions. However, of particular importance in educating people on the unique political system Wales possesses is the education system itself. In this light, the new curriculum for Wales presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform Wales, through its young people, into a country of high democratic engagement. To put it more ambitiously, to create a new generation of ‘ethical, informed citizens’, who ‘are ready to be citizens of Wales and the world’. Luckily, that wording is lifted directly from the Welsh Government’s A Curriculum for Life document.
The new curriculum for Wales is currently being developed, with the overhaul process beginning in 2015 with the establishment of ‘pioneer schools’, and the ‘design and development’ phase of the curriculum ending in 2019. By 2022, all schools will be using the new system. It is envisaged as a radical overhaul of the entire educational system in Wales for schoolchildren aged 3 to 16.
The stated aim for the development of the curriculum is to take four key purposes, and have them permeate the eight building blocks on which the curriculum will be developed. So far, so good. Making one of these four key purposes creating ethical, informed citizens embedded at the heart of the education system in Wales is admirable, but ambitions are different to results.
There is a risk that this ‘key purpose’ will amount to a grand ambition that never makes it into the day-to-day learning of Welsh pupils. The curriculum’s founding documents state that it hopes for the Welsh education system to arm pupils with the knowledge of their human and democratic responsibilities and rights, and with a knowledge of their culture, community, society, and world. Patently this is not currently the case, if nearly half of Welsh people are unable to even name the biggest public service run by their own government. Clearly, radical change is needed.
To be able to name the services your government runs should be considered below even the foundational standard for a functioning democracy. To have the majority of your citizens voting in elections should be considered below even the foundational standard for a functioning democracy. One of Welsh devolution’s founding justifications was Wales as a political entity existing as a fluid policy vehicle that could lead the world through innovative thinking, not merely attempt to reach a basic minimum standard. When applied to the theory of active citizenship, this means awareness of the leading figures in Welsh politics and an awareness of the contemporary policy and ideological debates that are happening in the Assembly and beyond, and an active, regular engagement with these processes that extends beyond turning up to vote once every five years.
Given the base we are starting from, there is a lot of work to be done. Welsh political institutions need to do more, and the Welsh media needs to more. But when attempting to build a world-class democracy, and for Welsh society to reap the benefits this would bring, the education system needs to play a major role. Citizenship in the curriculum needs to become more than an (albeit admirable) overarching ambition, but a fundamental life skill that is embedded in on-the-ground learning. The new Welsh curriculum needs to live up to its ambition.