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MPs act on sinking interest in citizenship

New research shows that 80 per cent of pupils never get round to discussing major political developments in the classroom. Or minor ones for that matter. Academics from Britain and America have concluded that children rarely discuss even the issues which affect their own communities.

Nor are they likely to talk about such things at home, say professors Ivor Crewe from Essex University and Donald Searing from the University of North Carolina, who conducted a three-year study of education for citizenship.

They conclude that formal lessons in the subject make little difference. Instead, the real key to political consciousness and a sense of civic place, is informed but informal discussion with their teachers.

"Formal coursework conveys institutional and political information," the professors told a recent seminar held by the Citizenship Foundation at the Royal Society of Arts. "But it is in their discussions with teachers - in whatever classes or activities these take place - that pupils acquire the skills and propensities for the practice."

The findings were released as a group of politicians, businessmen and educationists announced their own plans for liberating civic pride from what they see as the dead hand of personal and social education.

The Labour party's chief spin doctor, Peter Mandelson, and the leader of the Conservatives' anti-anti-Europeans, the Rt Hon David Hunt, have teamed up to conclude that responsibility is a very good thing for young people. And there isn't enough of it about.

With the backing of the think tank, Demos, Messrs Hunt and Mandelson are part of a new "high-level forum" attempting to persuade Britain's youth to take a more active approach to citizenship.

The forum intends to tackle a perceived lack of progress on the civics front by declaring war on jaw-jaw.

Talking about it just isn't good enough, say the former Conservative Welsh secretary and Labour's member for Hartlepool. Children need a place in the community: and that means community service of some sort.

They hope to build on the sort of community action programme pioneered by the Changemakers initiative. With the backing of the Secondary Heads Association this practical approach to citizenship kicked off in 1995 and there are now 45 pilot projects across the country.

Next year it will involve 120 schools and youth groups nationwide devising and taking part in social and community activities, including building and refurbishment projects, running newspapers and anti-bullying regimes.

Even well-informed debate is no substitute for action, according to the new body, which will produce a report in 12 months' time. Jim Cogan, forum member and director of the charity, Schools Partnership Worldwide believes that, to some extent, material progress has taken away the natural role which children once had in supporting family and community life. The result, he says, is a lack of personal identity and, correspondingly, an intellectual conformity.

Mr Cogan points abroad to the healthy effects of involving young people in community life: "There are some schools in Africa where the kids do all the cleaning, the cooking and all the preparation. But they are actively engaged. The schools may have five text books, three pencils, a third-rate teacher talking in the pupils' third language. But the kids are motivated."

Secondary Curriculum, TES2 page 14.

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