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Book of the week

TOMORROW'S CITIZENS: Critical debates in citizenship and education. Edited by Nick Pearce and Joe Hallgarten. Institute for Public Policy Research. pound;8.95.

From 2002 citizenship education will be compulsory in England: in primary schools part of the non-statutory framework; in secondary schools a statutory foundation subject. But what is "citizenship", and what form should its teaching take?

As David Miller points out in the opening essay in this collection, the term "citizen" still has to us a slightly foreign and unsettling ring. It raises real questions, too. Citizenship pre-supposes nationhood, yet it joins the curriculum at a time when globalisation on the one hand and devolution on the other are transforming our sense of national identity and our democracy as well. Are we citizens of England or Wales, or of Britain, or of Europe - or of all three at once? And what rights does citizenship confer, and what duties? There is a certain angst behind the changes, a sort of collective insecurity. We know the questions; we don't really know the answers.

So Tomorrow's Citizens is doubly welcome. It pulls together the insights of people who have thought seriously about the implications: not just politicians and curriculum planners but also academics, religious and community leaders and teachers. Yet there is nothing "academic" about this volume, and nothing remotely boring. Contributors address the questions, and their colleagues' arguments about them, with the directness that is born of real experience as well as real conviction. Teachers - and, indeed, their students - will be lucky to get a better introduction .

There is no disagreement as to what we would like to happen. Professor Bernard Crick, who chaired the Department for Education and Employment advisory committee on citizenship education and currently advises David Blunkett, summarises it: "We want children to learn self-confidence and social and moral responsible behaviour. We want them to learn about and be involved in 'their' communities. We want them to have the knowledge, skills and values that will underpin and help to sustain a genuinely democratic society."

The arguments, however, are about the problems that lie behind such worthy expectations - about inequality, for instance, or gender, or "second-clss citizenship"; or about what we mean by "community"; or about pluralism and whether values and culture are relative or are common to all; or about the impact of globalisation and corporate power on the democratic process; or about the nature and source of our "rights" and of the obligations that counterweight them. Contributions by David Miller, Anne Phillips, Nicholas Tate, Anthony Giddens and (very powerfully) Stuart Hall highlight both the difficulty and the importance of what we are trying to do.

How, then, do we turn intentions into practice? Martin Cross, head of one of the major examination boards, argues that citizenship needs to be made into a GCSE subject to give it status, on the grounds that "if it's not assessed, then it won't be taught". So much for citizenship as the symbol of inclusion.

William Atkinson, who as a black headteacher of a London secondary school knows the realities as well as any, sounds a more fundamental sort of caution. Schools, he writes, are already seriously overloaded: the danger is that citizenship will become just another task, on top of the other burdens.

It is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, however, who throws down the real challenge. Remember, he says, that schools cannot, in themselves, be agents of change. They can only do those things that we, as individuals and as a society, are ready and able to support them in. They cannot possibly forge citizenship for us, if the world outside the school gates is pulling in the opposite direction.

Editors Nick Pearce and Joe Hallgarten pull these threads together in a first-class summary chapter. Curriculum planners need to realise, they say, that citizenship education is never going to be clear-cut. A healthy citizenship curriculum will establish itself in multiple forms and with multiple identities; at all costs, the "tyranny of best practice" must be avoided. Schools must be free to prioritise their own values, to plan creatively, to take risks that may not always be successful. If they are able to innovate and excite - and able to let children live citizenship as well as learn it - citizenship education will work and flourish.

That is excellent advice that applies to rather more than citizenship education. This book is wise, important, timely and thoroughly enjoyable.

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