Written evidence from David Kerr[1] (TEC 22)


Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

The Work of the Electoral Commission



I have a distinguished track record in citizenship education as a researcher, policy maker and teacher. I was seconded as Professional Officer to the Crick Group, chaired by Professor (Sir) Bernard Crick, which led to the introduction of Citizenship as a new statutory National Curriculum subject in schools in England from 2002. I also, at NFER, directed the ground-breaking Citizenship Education Longitudinal Study (CELS) which investigated the impact of statutory Citizenship in schools and on the first cohort of students to be taught it. I was also seconded to DfE to support the infrastructure behind the setting up of Citizenship as a subject. I am involved with the Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT). At Young Citizens I help the organisation promote the active involvement of young people in democracy and public life through programmes and projects and through networking with like-minded organisations at UK and European level. I had dealings with the Electoral Commission when it was first set in the early 2000s and was involved in supporting its efforts to produce education resources to explain how the UK democratic and electoral system works to young people.

Young Citizens:

Young Citizens (formerly the Citizenship Foundation) is a leading UK-based NGO in the field of citizenship education, youth participation and democracy https://www.youngcitizens.org/

Our vision is for a society that is fair and inclusive, based on a strong and secure democracy, and in which every person achieves their full potential as an active citizen, both personally and within their communities. Our mission is too help make this a reality by enabling a greater number of young citizens to participate actively in society. We do this by equipping children and young people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to make a positive difference to the society in which they live – locally, nationally and globally.

Our programmes and actions centre on giving:

Children and young people the knowledge and skills for participation including:

Giving children and young people the confidence to participate including:

Why making a submission:

I and Young Citizens strongly believe in education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy for all citizens, but particularly for children and young people. We believe that only through such an education will society have the active, responsible, informed and critical citizens that are needed to strengthen and protect democratic society in the UK and elsewhere. We see a strong role for the Electoral Commission in working alongside us to help to educate children and young people about democracy, elections and participation in the UK and providing non-partisan advice and resources that can be disseminated to teachers, youth workers, NGOs and others who work in citizenship education and participation.

Inquiry Questions the Submission Addresses

  1. Effectiveness of Electoral Commission in discharging its statutory obligations

(a)   What roles and functions within UK electoral systems should the Commission perform?

The Electoral Commission should play a much stronger and more visible role in educating citizens about the UK democratic system and, particularly, in educating children and young people in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales who are the next generation of voters.  It should help all people, but particularly children and young people understand in a non-partisan way:

This stronger role is needed for three main reasons.


(b)  Should the remit of the Electoral Commission be changed?

Following on from the answer to (a) above the answer is yes and urgently. The Electoral Commission remit should be changed to give it a clearer, broader role to educate citizens about the UK democratic system, how it functions and how they can participate. It should not just be narrowly about independent scrutiny of the system, as currently, but also about providing independent education and information about the system. This should not be left to partisan, political organisations such as UK Government and/or political parties. There is a need for an independent source of non-partisan information that citizens, politicians and educators can go to and trust.

The main reasons why this remit should be changed and broadened to have a strong education purpose are the following:


  1. Public and political confidence in the impartiality and ability of the Electoral Commission

Widening the remit of the Electoral Commission to having a stronger and more visible education role, in terms of producing and disseminating non-partisan resources and information about the UK democratic system is key to increasing public and political confidence in the impartiality of the Electoral Commission and its ability to oversee, scrutinise and also support that system. It would bring the Electoral Commission more into line with what similar bodies do in other countries across the world.

It might also help to redress the democratic deficit in the UK which sees very low levels of trust in politicians and political parties and a growing number of people disengaging from the political process completely. There is a concern that these low levels of trust, fuelled by the kinds of mis- and dis-information about democracy and elections that we see currently in the United States – could led to further disengagement and polarisation among citizens in the UK. These are dangerous warning signs for the health of our democratic system and measures need to be put in place to address these trends and the issues that lie behind them. There is an urgent need for an impartial and authoritative body to explain how democracy, elections, voting and vote counting works in the UK to citizens to rebuild trust and faith in the democratic process. The Electoral Commission as a non-partisan organisation with a UK wide remit is ideally placed to help to restore public confidence in the system and with it political confidence.

If all children and young people came across the Electoral Commission and understood its function as part of their citizenship education in schools across the UK, as well as had access to Commission resources that helped them to understand how the UK democratic system works and how they can participate, then this would help to massively build confidence going forward in the Commission. This would sure to be noticed by politicians in their engagement with schools and young people. Such a move would be good not only for the Electoral Commission in terms of its profile, reach and reputation but also for the overall health of the UK democratic system.

A useful comparison is to the UK Parliament in Westminster. The role of the UK Parliament is to govern the UK but it has also recognised the need to educate people, particularly children and young people, about the role of Parliament and the kind of work that it does in both Houses in making, scrutinising, voting and passing legislation and the roles and responsibilities of MPs, committees, parties in parliamentary processes and affairs. To this end it has extended the role of its Parliament Education Service (PES) through the building of a new bespoke PES facility on site at Westminster: putting lots of money into producing a wide range of colourful, informative and engaged resources, both physical and online, that bring Parliament to live for young people; and, employing a bigger team of education trained staff to run PES. It has been very successful in bringing more schools and young people to Parliament, physically and virtually so that they get a real sense of how things operate and how they can get involved. This is a model that could be useful for the Electoral Commission to look at. I would hope that if the Commission widened its education remit then it would be helpful to work closely with PES and similar organisations.


  1. What, if any, reforms of the Electoral Commission should be considered

As this submission has underlined the main reform of the Electoral Commission that should be considered is a widening of its remit to include an explicit education function in terms of educating all people, but particularly children and young people, about the workings of the UK democratic system and how they can participate.

The Electoral Commission is in an ideal position to carry out this education function given it:

There is currently a lack of:

Broadening the remit of the Electoral Commission to include an explicit education function would go a long way to addressing these gaps. It would also improve the organisation’s profile and increase public and political confidence in its impartiality and operation.

I would like to finish this submission with the statement the Lord Chancellor made in 1998 and was included as the final comment in the Crick Report that:

‘We should not, must not, dare not, be complacent about the health and future of British democracy. Unless we become a nation of engaged citizens, our democracy is not secure.’

This was true at the time citizenship education was launched over 20 years ago. The expectation at the time was also that the newly created Electoral Commission would have a key role to play in educating citizens, including young people as future citizens, about British democracy.

It is now 2020 and this statement rings even more true. What is also true is that the role that the Electoral Commission can play is even bigger than when it was created, given the UK democratic system is even more complex today and remains insecure with increasing threats, tensions and strains evident. Now is the time for the Electoral Commission to step up and fulfil its potential to be a key organisation in helping to educate all citizens across the UK and particularly children and young people about the UK democratic system, so they become more informed, active and engaged going forward.  There is not a moment to lose.


November 2020



[1] David Kerr, Consultant Director of Education at the NGO, Young Citizens and Head of ITT, University of Reading