Approaches to assessment

Tony Breslin looks at the role of the GCSE short courses within the citizenship agenda

With citizenship about to become a statutory part of the national curriculum at key stages 3 and 4 from September, teachers are asking how they might best examine, assess or accredit this new foundation subject. The only statutory requirement to assess does not come into place until summer 2004 and involves no more than reporting in writing to parents at the close of KS3.

However, this should not dissuade us from putting more rigorous mechanisms in place, not least because the Office for Standards in Education will be looking for them. For many, at KS4, this will mean some role for GCSE.

Examining citizenship in the curriculum or elsewhere, is, of course, contentious. "Failing" in citizenship carries a different baggage than probably any other subject, as recent talk about citizenship "lessons" and "tests" for newcomers to the UK has served to emphasise.

There are practical difficulties too. Citizenship, many argue, does not lend itself to the whole paraphernalia of the school subject: lessons, assignments, tests, exams and so on. Good quality, empowering civic, social and political education, as citizenship is framed in the Republic of Ireland or, more simply social studies, as it appears in the US and many European countries, should never have been just an add on. The commitment of curriculum time requires mechanisms of evaluation and quality assurance to measure not the just performance of students but the quality and appropriateness of provision.

Awarding bodies have not had a good time lately, one being hung out to dry in the tabloid press, all of them struggling with the examining practicalities of Curriculum 2000. They have not lost the knack, though, of spotting a new market. Enter, from all three awarding bodies, specifications in Short Course GCSE citizenship studies. The studies bit is important.

Loosely, all three specifications address the new curriculum requirements and each provides an assessment tool for, in particular, the knowledge base for citizenship and, through coursework, which contributes 40 per cent of the marks in each case, the skilled application of this.

In addition, each of the new specifications helps to provide an underpinning for the study of citizenship and an "anchorage" point in an academic curriculum.

Each helps to brand citizenship and give it the kind of visibility and presence that it has rarely enjoyed as a cross-curricular theme and, as one sign of this, major publishers are shortly to publish textbooks to support all three specifications.

As short courses, these new specifications can usefully complement short courses in RE, either in the core or as a combined option, and they do not make exhaustive demands on timetable space, especially if some of the time currently allocated to PSHE, or PCHE, is drawn on. Feedback from the 24 centres piloting the OCR specification suggests two standard periods a week across Years 10 and 11 should be sufficient.

However, a course in GCSE citizenship studies is not the same a citizenship education in its fullest sense. Participating in a student council, taking part in a mock election, carrying out a school based trial, visiting local civic facilities, undertaking a community service placement or joining a local campaigning group, which constitute citizenship and might be captured in the quality of a student's GCSE answer or the theme of their coursework.

But citizenship programmes should involve this kind of work whether or not students are following a GCSE course. Moreover, assessment and accreditation frameworks need to reflect the experiences and skills gained. Thus, to fail citizenship studies is not to fail citizenship, because the two are not synonymous.

A GCSE short course in citizenship studies does not then provide a one-stop solution for delivering citizenship but, as a core or optional course, it can add an academic strand to a school's citizenship provision, among a broader offer that is assessed and accredited in a variety of ways.

Teachers from a range of social science, arts and humanities backgrounds will certainly feel comfortable with the content of the specifications.

None the less, alternative assessment tools and courses should also be considered and here the key skills framework, ASDAN awards and carrier GCSE and, for the gifted and talented, AS specifications, notably in social science, sociology, politics and social policy might all have a role to play. Again, none provide a sole mechanism for delivering citizenship, nor should they, but each can contribute to a school's approach to citizenship and its assessment.

GCSE must not dominate the citizenship agenda in the way it has other parts of the curriculum but it may have something to bring to the table. We would be wrong to ignore the contribution that it can make.

Copies of each of the new specifications are available from AQA, Edexcel and OCR Tony Breslin is chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, an executive member of the Association for Citizenship Teaching(ACT) and the Association for the Teaching of the Social Sciences(ATSS) and an experienced teacher, adviser and examiner

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