The Auld Alliance is just a shot away

Riots across France have a powerful lesson for those who deliver Scotland's citizenship education, says Alan Britton

ast year in France, many young people from second and third-generation immigrant communities rioted nightly across the country, destroying cars, sports halls, libraries and schools.

While being dismissed as racaille (its closest meaning in English is "rabble") by an interior minister aspiring to the presidency, the rioters have drawn attention to long-simmering feelings of alienation, and resentment towards underlying racial discrimination in law and order, housing and employment.

What role does the French educational system play in all of this? Does citizenship education have a bearing on the situation? Can it act as a force for good, or is it part of the wider problem? And do we in Scotland have anything to learn from the recent experience of our partners in the Auld Alliance?

France has a long tradition of citizenship education. Talleyrand published a report in 1791 urging schools to teach all citizens about the constitution of the Republic, and to teach them to perfect it within a moral framework.

This became a compulsory part of the primary curriculum in 1881-82, alongside the secularisation of state education and universal primary education. Until recently, the focus of civic education was on the primacy of the French Republic and its defining values of "Liberty, equality and fraternity", and the notion that everyone is a citizen of France regardless of social status, religious belief or ethnicity.

However as Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian: "The doctrine was doubtless perfectly well-intentioned. There shall be no categories of citizen in France, it declared. The law shall view everyone equally.

"The trouble is, it is not the law that decides every aspect of daily life: people do. And they do not always have the pure, colour-blind outlook presumed by the French notion of integration."

The most recent reviews of citizenship education during the 1990s finally acknowledged that France is not a cultural monolith.

New programmes, which form a structured and statutory pathway from the ecole maternelle to the baccalaureat (broadly equivalent to 3-18), were designed to shift the emphasis from "national" to "civic" values. They were also intended to encourage critical and reflective learning, and engender a respect for democracy.

But closer scrutiny suggests that they remain heavily weighted towards didactic learning about the central pillars of state authority. Thus, for every exhortation to "respect one's classmates and accept difference", there is a directive that pupils will learn "the main symbols and icons of the French nation and Republic".

Indeed, republican values are to be instilled from nursery school onwards.

Despite nods towards cross-curricular approaches, the actual delivery of citizenship education in middle and upper secondary tends to fall to often reluctant historygeography teachers, and is usually organised around fortnightly debating sessions.

While this highly-structured pathway ensures that all pupils have access to detailed "civics" content, there remains uncertainty about the impact of this approach on the skills, values and dispositions of the children themselves. What appear to be missing are regular opportunities to interrogate the underlying values of the republic in a critical, yet constructive, manner that relates to pupils' everyday lives.

A curriculum that constantly assures pupils they are equally valued stakeholder citizens, contrary to their daily experience, may contribute to the disillusionment and anger that ultimately spark firebombing and rioting.

Since 1789, France has asserted the primacy of "Liberty, equality, and fraternity". In Scotland, in A Curriculum for Excellence, we have only recently acquired an equivalent mission statement for education: "Justice, wisdom, compassion and integrity", taken from the Scottish Parliament mace.

However, such words can appear perilously empty. Whether due to a limited approach to citizenship education, or the pressure to coach for exam success at the expense of broader educational objectives, young people are not always afforded the space in which to interrogate these values critically in the light of life experiences that may include injustice, poverty or discrimination.

Truly effective education for citizenship, as found in a growing number of schools and classrooms across Scotland, provides precisely this space.

While it cannot and should not insulate young people from difficult social realities, it can help them to confront these issues and to articulate their responses in more positive ways.

Alan Britton works in the Education for Global Citizenship unit at Glasgow University and taught French in North Lanarkshire.

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