Few schools would disagree with their role in developing students who are active, informed citizens. The challenge is to do this throughout the school, not simply for the keen minority who regularly attend school council meetings. To take on the citizenship mantle, students need to learn how to do so through participation. That's what makes the work of the Active Citizenship Network so invigorating.
Run from Devon by John Aldridge, the network uses a shoe-string budget to "empower young people to energise and enthuse other young people". It is a project of extraordinary ambition and yet, like all the best ideas, astonishing simplicity. One or two days' training in digital video recording and editing, run by media teachers and industry professionals, equips students with skills that can be harnessed for citizenship.
First there is a school promotional video: Year 10 students record Year 7 students talking about the transition to their new school. The target audience is Year 6. The underlying message is: we felt as nervous as you but we safely made the transition. The more powerful unspoken message is young people are doing things for young people - citizenship in action.
The students then pursue a variety of local citizenship projects. Their brief is to gather models of good practice. About half the schools base their work on existing links with local voluntary organisations. Others are introduced by the network to a community partner. They then have to do research on the organisation as well as filming its work.
On the sample video, students from Cheshire focus on an over-50s club, develop facilities for disabled visitors, and create a new woodland area in their school. Then they make a documentary about it.
Many of the early participant schools are now running their own school newsrooms with the media approach to citizenship embedded in the school's culture and part of everyday life. Underpinning this is a philosophy that sees media literacy as central to citizenship. For classroom use there is also an extensive set of study resources focused on the videos produced by the students. Written by Gill Brigg, formerly an advisory teacher for drama, these range from 15-minute discussions based on the video activities to full programmes for sixth-form citizenship, school council work, and charity committees.
She says: "It's impressive to see how much the students develop as a result of the project. They are given total responsibility for their work, have to work as a team and, finally, present their videos at the regional awards.
In the process they learn many skills, and a realisation that working on behalf of others is something many people do without thinking."
The Active Citizenship Network has just started work in Yorkshire, thanks to the support of the Skipton Building Society. Projects have also been supported by the Cheshire, Derbyshire and Coventry building societies and Wessex Water. Careers Wales provides 100 per cent funding for schools in Wales. And there is a generous commitment from national organisations such as Panasonic and the BBC. Each school pays an initial registration fee of pound;425. Students then get a day's training with a media professional.
John Aldridge is especially proud of the educationbusiness partnerships.
"The support of businesses is helping us achieve our main aim," he says, "to turn passive citizens into active citizens using new media."
At a time when the media is quick to heap criticism on young people, here's something novel and invigorating: a project which gives young people a strong purpose, new skills, and a commitment to working on behalf of others.
It provides a powerful model for delivering the new statutory requirements of citizenship. More important, it's something our students will love to be involved in and will learn from - which for many of us is the heart of citizenship.
Active Citizenship NetworkTel: 01404 811597 Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds