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Citizenship: Helping young people to find their voice

David Barrs, headteacher, Anglo European School, Ingatestone, Essex

We regard citizenship education as a "subject plus" at our school because, as well as being the only curriculum subject that develops young people's understanding of politics, democracy, the law and the economy, it impacts directly on student voice, community cohesion, relationships, behaviour, and our ethos and reputation.

The leadership team here encourages feedback from our young people on teaching and learning, and citizenship is key to strengthening student voice and developing skills that make young people better able to express their views, even on controversial matters.

Crucially, we find that our students have a strong sense of right and wrong, which helps us manage poor behaviour, and they also have a strong sense of what will make the world a better place. We certainly find that many wrong-doings in the school are brought to our attention by students because they do have a strong moral sense.

Active citizenship programmes involve young people in community work, often interacting with those of other faiths and cultures, which supports community integration and affects the perception local people have of the school.

Citizenship activities not only build confidence but also broaden the outlook of young people to enable them to make decisions about their future, and consider a wider range of career possibilities including politics, law, journalism and social care.

If citizenship education were removed from the statutory curriculum our school would continue to teach it, although many others may not. This is because we believe it is a vital means of ensuring that our students develop the skills and knowledge to become enquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people.

Keith Ajegbo, former headteacher, Deptford Green School, south-east London

As a headteacher I was inspired by Sir Bernard Crick's report Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools. His aim in the light of "worrying levels of apathy and ignorance about public life" was "no less than a change in the political culture of this country". My ambition, on a smaller scale, was to improve the motivation of pupils at my large inner-city comprehensive school. Citizenship education was vital in achieving this.

In deprived inner-city areas, young people often lack a voice. They feel disempowered and disrespected. Many lacked the ambition to achieve to the best of their ability in their school work or to take responsibility for their learning.

While we conceived of citizenship as a serious, stand-alone academic subject, we felt that it needed to permeate the whole life of the school - in the culture and community, as well as curriculum - to be most effective.

In order to involve all students, local councillors, national politicians and police came into assemblies to present their views to pupils.

Citizenship has a body of knowledge that is unique. It is about examining and developing understanding of the concepts of democracy, justice, rights, responsibilities, identity and diversity, and how to apply them to the real world.

At our school it enabled young people to develop their critical thinking skills, to make effective, measured arguments and to get involved in debate, allowing them both to formulate their views and, importantly, understand the positions of others. Citizenship teachers were key to developing school policy for discussing controversial issues including race, ethnicity, culture and class.

Through our development of citizenship, we saw a steady and continuous improvement in exam results, turning us into a high-performing inner-city school. We are convinced that citizenship education has been important to improving the attitudes of our young people and in transforming our school.

Rachael Warwick, headteacher, Didcot Girls' School, Oxfordshire

Didcot Girls' School differs from any of the previous schools I have worked at, because citizenship education is delivered throughout the school by subject specialists and is also offered as a GCSE option at key stage 4. I have found the difference that this makes to our school astounding.

Our students understand how to campaign for change. They realise that they have a voice and understand that it is essential they exercise this voice in a living democracy. They make appointments to discuss their campaigns with me. Without exception, they are well informed and offer their views and listen to mine with absolute respect and clear conviction.

Citizenship education has the power to transform schools and society. Last week, students were interviewed for a local newspaper about their campaign to protect a local graveyard from vandalism. Radio station Heart FM picked up on a campaign by another group here to lower the speed limit on a local road following a fatal car accident. These students have met Ed Vaizey, culture minister and our local MP, at the Houses of Parliament and discussed their campaigns with him.

This Government has a vision of a Big Society. If this is to have a chance of becoming a living reality, then young people need to be informed about issues, taught how to engage with the process of political change and motivated by their experience of effecting this change.

Citizenship education is a vital component of a curriculum fit for the 21st century to produce citizens fit for the 21st century, which is why, whatever the outcome of the curriculum review, we will continue to teach it.

William Atkinson, headteacher, Phoenix High School, Hammersmith, west London

I have always been very keen for students at Phoenix High School to be involved in active citizenship projects, as these activities empower young people and enable them to develop the types of skills that will benefit them throughout their lives. I have witnessed first-hand how participation in such programmes builds pupils' confidence and motivation to engage in and with wider society.

In 2007 students took part in the Giving Nation Challenge, an active citizenship programme that was an opportunity for them to work together to generate good ideas and effect change in their communities, as well as to have their ideas tested and interrogated, which sharpened their own thinking.

The students came up with a social enterprise to address real problems in the community: gang culture, postcode wars and the resulting negative perception of young people.

They worked to provide alternatives to gang crime for young people in their area through open-mic nights that showcased the talents of local young people. Their social enterprise was not only a great success, it also encouraged the pupils to express themselves positively and get involved with and support their community. One of the students leading the campaign went on to win a London Peace Award and following that met with then Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street.

Statutory citizenship education, when combined with committed school leaders and teachers, provides valuable curriculum time for, and incentivises, active citizenship projects. Without citizenship education as a core subject in the new national curriculum, schools will be less inclined to take up these valuable programmes and pupils' educations will be the poorer for it.

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