All aboard the people's ark

How can schools help to supply the citizens for Tony Blair's young country? Robert Unwin asks.

If, as the Prime Minister said recently, the people are the masters now, should education for citizenship - or peopleship - be taken on board alongside the emphasis on literacy and numeracy in schools? Constitutional reform is high on the agenda, with devolution for Scotland and Wales, the forthcoming White Paper on simple government, and the introduction of proportional representation for some elections. In addition, events since May 1, particularly the experiences surrounding the death of the Princess of Wales, have trained the spotlight on the changing relationship between the people and the monarchy.

Listening to Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, addressing the annual education conference of the Historical Association, one sensed that, after a low profile in recent years, citizenship could be back on the history agenda too.

If the national curriculum is reviewed in 1998, history teachers might find a chance to claim, once again, a role for their subject in citizenship education. Given the renewed interest in the duties, responsibilities and rights of the people, what steps are being, or will be, taken to improve citizenship education in schools for the new century?

How should schools respond to the proposition in the White Paper Excellence in Schools that "a modern democratic society depends on the informed and active involvement of all its citizens"? How can one set about producing young citizens for the "young country" that the Prime Minister says he wants for the new Britain? What role has citizenship education in the mission to modernise? Is there room for more civic education in an overcrowded school curriculum, and can it be accommodated both in subjects such as history and in whole school programmes through personal and social education?

Citizenship education in school has suffered chequered fortunes in recent years which is shown, for example, in the changing position of history, now a besieged subject in the secondary curriculum; and in the presence of citizenship within variable personal and social education programmes. Successive secretaries of state in the 1980s spoke of history as the foundation stone of citizenship and democracy. When the original history working party produced its first report there was talk of informed citizenship. However, by the time the statutory order was introduced history had been date-capped and, significantly, in this curriculum guidance the National Curriculum Council did not use the word citizenship in justifying the teaching of history.

In contrast, on the national scene it was the time of active citizenship, promoted by the Home Office, and of various citizens' charters. Whether active citizens should be informed was never seriously debated. In its cross-curricular booklet, Education for Citizenship, which, unfortunately, did not survive the Dearing reforms, the NCC chose positive, participative citizenship. More recently, citizenship has been embraced by the values curriculum. When the Office for Standards in Education modified its original inspection guidance, citizenship was to be judged in the context of pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. The Forum for Values in Education concluded that children should study civics; while in QCA values materials, which are about to be piloted in school, citizenship finds a place in PSE courses. The Department for Education and Employment clearly sees a high profile for citizenship, which makes the composition and terms of reference of its advisory group on citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools of such importance.

Given that the Prime Minister is on the advisory committee of the citizenship foundation, perhaps his Brighton speech could have been an ideal platform for raising the citizenship education standard. Yet, while he used the term "people" 34 times, the term "citizen" only occurred twice. Reference to a people's democracy was avoided, but only just, for such terminology has unfortunate association with the fallen regimes of eastern Europe, now receding into memory. His inclusion of the Magna Carta as a British innovation was extraordinary; while in advocating a radical reforming programme, there was no agenda of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Yet, as we grasp for new language and concepts, we may be more comfortable with the notion of "peopleship" which in addition to duties, rights and responsibilites might embrace changing attitudes and values.

It is a reward of history to be able to discern something of the human condition at defining moments of change. Citizenship in many European nations and the United States emerged from the shared experiences of barricades, reform clubs and service in revolutionary armies. Experiences shaped citizenship identity and associated cultures developed. One of the most moving scenes of recent years was to watch the elections in South Africa in 1994 where black and white, old and young, master, mistress and servant queued, often for hours, to make a cross on a ballot paper. A new identity was being forged out of the painful and divided experiences of the past. There is a spirit of change in Britain in 1997, and it could be sensed all around in the experiences following the death of the Princess of Wales. Such shared experiences can help to foster an inclusive and collective British identity. In the Unied Kingdom, under a benign monarchy, the focus has not been on independence days, but rather to recall the shared experiences of the Second World War and the "spirit of the Blitz". Something of this could be seen in the VE Day commemoration. Others might look to the Jubilee of 1977, although it is doubtful if an unreformed monarchy could "pull the crowds" today. This fact is concentrating minds wonderfully as the passage is completed from subjectship to citizenship. If Diana was the people's Princess, who will be the people's king?

Despite politicians' and education advisers' rhetoric, increased competition in school league tables will further marginalise those areas of the curriculum that do not lead directly to measurable attainment levels. If the Government is serious about citizenship education it must invest both time and money to raise its status. Is it too much to hope that, before schools are presented with new programmes of citizenship education, there will be a public debate as to the kinds of citizenship we would wish to endorse and promote in the next millennium? At a time when there is a need to re-enforce, through shared experience, and inclusive community identity, it may be that we should look at the extent to which a compassionate, informed and active citizenry may be encouraged, and be seen to develop.

Dr Robert Unwin teaches history education in the School of Education, University of Leeds, where he is also responsible for the course in spiritual, moral, social and cultural education

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you