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Citizenship gets real

A national strategy is needed to address the patchy provision in schools, writes Tony Breslin

The need for a strong social curriculum, centred around the challenge of developing responsible citizens, has never been stronger.

One only has to look at the low levels of participation in formal politics, the social exclusion of significant numbers of young people, the involvement of young men - born and educated in Britain - in last summer's London bombings, or the rise of the far right in local politics.

We need to prepare young people with the knowledge, skills, dispositions and confidence to play their role within society. So we should welcome the decision of the House of Commons education select committee to conduct an investigation into how, four years after the introduction of citizenship to the national curriculum, practice is changing in our classrooms, and how it is affecting the learning of young people.

As it approaches its mid-point, a nine-year study into citizenship by the National Foundation for Educational Research, provides some useful pointers.

In the study, schools are broken down into different categories.

"Progressing" schools are providing a strong taught curriculum and many opportunities for students to develop their citizenship skills through activities both in school and the community.

"Focused" schools offer a sound curriculum but are less inclined to promote the participation skills which encourage confidence. "Implicit" schools offer much of the same, but do not build this around a clearly identified module. "Minimalist" schools have barely got off the launch pad - citizenship is one more burden which they hope will pass.

The varied quality of current provision is to be expected for a new subject but at its best is highly innovative. Indeed, the focus on developing skills and dispositions alongside knowledge - so central to effective citizenship education - is something that established academic subjects would have done well to explore in their subject-building days.

In putting the "doing" of citizenship at the core of practice from the start, today's best-practice schools may be developing an approach that would reap benefits if applied in other subject areas too - functional English and maths come to mind.

But if we are to address more speedily the unevenness in current practice, we need a national strategy for teaching and learning in citizenship. Those who have taken up the challenge since the citizenship order was first published, have used its principles to change practice across their schools.

This has involved nurturing both achievement and inclusion, with some schools developing manifestos as public statements of their commitment to the subject. Engaging with both the school and the community builds inclusion, and included pupils achieve.

But too many schools have yet to get the point of it all. And those that might benefit most are often the last to see it because of the broader pressures they face.

A national strategy would give space to school leaders by opening up access to resources, advisory support and professional development provision, while forcing those who still struggle to see citizenship as a "real"

subject to take it seriously.

A strategy would provide a framework through which other schools could learn from the best, while ensuring that the enduring importance of citizenship education is emphasised. Such a strategy might require:

* the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to place citizenship at the core of curriculum and assessment reviews, and stress its importance in advisory papers on curriculum models, time allocation and examination practice;

* the Training and Development Agency to set out a plan to ensure every school has a qualified practitioner by 2010. While the soon-to-be launched national continuing professional development certificate in citizenship is a welcome move, it is surely wrong that the number of citizenship PGCE places available nationally is to be cut at a time when schools lack subject expertise and existing courses are over-subscribed;

* each inspection team to include a citizenship specialist. The move away from subject-focused inspection makes this more important, given that citizenship is more than just a subject;

* the self-evaluation form that forms part of the new inspection process to be reworked to include a more overt citizenship focus;

* each local authority school improvement service to appoint a dedicated and properly resourced citizenship adviser to help with details of delivery at school level.

There have already been national strategies for numeracy, literacy, science and ICT. Similar investment in a strategy for citizenship education would pay dividends in tackling political disengagement, social exclusion and anti-social behaviour in our communities.

Observe the apparent fragility of our diverse, multi-cultural society and the confusion around our identity and what it means to be British in the 21st century.

Citizenship education is not optional and cannot be an add-on. It needs to sit at the centre of the curriculum and at the core of how schools operate as institutions.

This isn't just about one subject's struggle to establish itself. It is about preparing young people to play their full part in the world and the kind of places we want our schools to be a decade from now.

Tony Breslin is chief executive at the Citizenship Foundation: Developing Citizens: a comprehensive introduction to effective citizenship education in the secondary school, edited by Tony Breslin and Barry Dufour, is published by Hodder Murray in July

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