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Democracy rules OK

Many asylum-seekers were activists in their home lands. So it seems only logical to involve them in political education, writes Nic Barnard

Patronising your students is always a risk with adults. How to pitch your lesson to take into account their past experience and yet not miss out the basics? Chris Taylor found out the hard way when she taught citizenship to a class of immigrants. She recalls asking one student what experience he had of public speaking. "Representing my country at the United Nations," came the answer.

Oh, well. It's a lesson worth learning as Britain prepares to introduce citizenship tests. Taylor, who is language, literacy and numeracy development officer for Niace, the body that promotes adult education, has led development of a curriculum for migrants to help them not only pass the test but give them the confidence and skills to play an active part in British society.

"It's not like teaching young people the school curriculum," she says.

"You're working with people who may have had many years of political activism before they came to the UK."

For the past year, 18 FE colleges and other training providers have been piloting the course as part of Esol (English for speakers of other languages) for migrants. Such courses appear to be a natural vehicle for teaching citizenship. The curriculum - a joint project between Niace and London South Bank University - was commissioned by the Home Office as preparation for the forthcoming naturalisation tests, for those seeking UK citizenship: it will focus on knowledge of life in the UK.

It builds on the work of the Home Office's Life in the UK advisory group, set up by David Blunkett when he was Home Secretary and chaired by his long-time mentor and citizenship adviser, Sir Bernard Crick. The group's 2003 report, The Old and The New, identified six areas for a curriculum: national institutions, Britain as a multicultural society, the law, employment, sources of help and information, and everyday needs.

The course is divided into 12 units which cover these. They include lessons on democracy and community participation which consider not just the mechanics of voting, but how people can get involved in the local community. Taylor suggests visits to local council offices or the Houses of Parliament. Tutors should invite any community figures they can find, from MPs to midwives, to come in to classes.

Some learners will have been in the UK for decades; others may be recent arrivals. Some will have a sophisticated grasp of politics; others come from agricultural communities with little or no experience of democratic systems.

"We encourage teachers to draw on learners' experience in their community," says Taylor. "They may already be running Saturday schools or volunteering at their local mosque or involved with youth groups. Their home experience, whether in the UK or abroad, should be valued."

At Liverpool community college, the curriculum manager, Jan Luff, says there has been a hugely enthusiastic response - so much so that the college has begun offering citizenship lessons in courses other than Esol. The result was "a stampede", Luff says.

"If people are going to live here, they need to know more than 'cat on the mat' stuff," she says. "To deny people access to the system is to disadvantage them seriously. They can't possibly achieve their potential, even if they speak wonderful English."

Liverpool has more than 1,000 Esol students. Long-standing Liverpudlian communities from Somalia, China and the Yemen have given way to asylum-seekers and refugees who now make up 70 per cent of classes. That has had an impact on lessons. Luff says students 20 years ago were often poorly educated. "Now, many asylum-seekers and refugees are very well-qualified, and have often been politically involved in their own countries - that's why they're running.

"A lot of them have been tortured or persecuted because of their beliefs.

They're looking for a society where they see more fairness, freedom and democracy."

They make up a highly motivated cohort. "We have some wonderful comparative debates," Luff says, "on the laws in their country compared to Britain - marriage and divorce laws, consumer protection laws, legal advice and legal aid, civil and criminal courses, the British constitution.

"They want to be active citizens in the country where they've settled. They haven't come here to scrounge. And I think they're more likely to vote because they appreciate it."

Existing citizens and migrant workers are harder to reach, she says. The latter often have their noses to the grindstone. They may be active in their communities but are not politicised.

"We need to publicise to people how valuable their vote is, that they can lobby their representatives, that they can make a difference. It's about awareness."

She suggests including citizenship in other FE courses, in the way basic and key skills are. The Esol citizenship course has the potential to make a difference. Several people who have taken it have since enrolled on an interpreters' course. "They've realised they have a voice and can be advocates for those that don't speak English," says Luff. They have, in short, become citizenship ambassadors.

If she has one doubt, it's that enforced citizenship tests could lead to Esol teachers being seen as gatekeepers for the Home Office. "But there's no uneasiness about incorporating these sorts of topics into Esol lessons.

The fact there's going to be a national pack of materials has been very much welcomed."

Sir Bernard Crick also argues that the rules mean many migrants are missing opportunities. "We need to get education to new arrivals - whether they're refugees or people with work permits - as soon as possible," he says.

"At the moment, we're frustrated by the Department for Education and Skills' three-year rule, which says people must be in the country for that period before they qualify for adult education grants.

"That three years is a shaping period."

Almost 1,000 tutors nationwide have already attended training workshops about the modules. The pilot pack is now being revised, ready for a national launch in September.

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