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All quiet on the civics front

Four out of five British fifth formers rarely if ever discuss the major public issues of the day. They certainly don't discuss them in the classroom and a large proportion never talk about such things at home. They don't, it appears, even deal with issues affecting life in their neighbourhood.

These and other depressing findings follow three years of research in Britain and America by Professor Ivor Crewe from the University of Essex and Professor Donald Searing from the University of North Carolina.

Examining the part played by schools in what they term "the making of citizens", the professors conclude that political debate is a major tool for fostering a sense of civic identity. They also conclude that, in this respect at least, British schools are well off the pace.

Citizenship has been much in vogue. It occupies a central place in the rhetoric of the three main political parties. At the instigation of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, schools are about to see a major attempt to promote it in the curriculum. Citizenship has spawned a thousand worthy conferences large and small, a Citizenship Foundation peopled by influential types, and even a special Commission under the aegis of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Not that the policy side of things is necessarily a weakness. According to Professor Crewe the problem is not so much a failure to recognise the abstract importance of political education. Nor is it the widely perceived inadequacy of lessons in personal and social education (PSE). The real failing, as he told a recent audience at the Royal Society of Arts, is the lack of informal, matter-of-course discussion; the sort that pupils are likely to take seriously.

"What appears to matter most is not what occurs in civics, design for living or personal and social education courses," said Professor Crewe, "but rather simply engaging regularly in discussions with teachers, regardless of the subjects they teach or the settings in which these discussions occur. Formal coursework conveys institutional and political information. But it is in their discussions with teachers - in whatever classes or activities these take place - that pupils acquire the skills and propensitites for the practice.

"Nearly 80 per cent of the pupils aged 15-16 in our British communities appear to engage in very little discussion at all of the public issues that are confronting their nation at home or abroad, or of the issues that are matters of public concern in their local communities.

"More than half of them report that they never or only rarely have such discussions in their classrooms; and two thirds say that they never or only rarely have such discussions with their teachers. Eighty per cent do not talk about these matters during after school activities either.

"Moreover, the fact that nearly half of these same British pupils do not discuss public affairs at home means that they are missing out on a very important socialisation experience there too. Like their adult counterparts, many of they have no idea that such discussions are related to the practice of citizenship. And, even if they had the motivation, the likelihood that they would pursue political discourse is diminished by the same powerful social norms against talking about public issues in social settings that we have seen among adults. In fact they endorse these norms as strongly as do British adults."

Professors Crewe and Searing are in no doubt that schools, however imperfect, remain the best and possibly the only point at which serious social change can be effected.

Their faith in the regenerative power of education is widely shared. There is however less consensus about precisely what it is that schools should do in the face of the obdurately materialist world so regularly identified and attacked.

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