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'Pioneers of democracy'


Recognition of the importance of citizenship education is bringing the subject to classrooms from Europe to Australia.

Students will be required to undertake a study of civics and citizenship from the start of 1999.

The federal government has committed $20 million (Pounds 7.4m) over four years to prepare every school in the country. Teachers have already begun taking part in professional development programmes to ensure they are ready to offer the topic to their pupils.

Students from the mid-primary to the upper secondary years will learn about democracy and citizenship and they will be examined each year to test their knowledge of the history and workings of government and the nation's democratic foundations.

State, territory and federal education ministers agreed last year that students should undertake civics and citizenship education in a project called Discovering Democracy.

A team of distinguished historians, legal, political and educational experts was set up to develop curriculum material for the project. The committee is headed by one of Australia's leading historians, Dr John Hirst.

Last week, Dr Hirst presented federal education minister David Kemp with the first bundle of lesson plans, books, CDs, games and activities to be distributed to schools in November.

When he announced last year that agreement to introduce the new curriculum had been reached with the states and territories, Dr Kemp said few young Australians realised they were heirs to one of the world's most successful and pioneering democracies. Surveys had shown that Australians were remarkably ignorant of government and citizenship.

"Few young people realise that Australia led Britain and America in democratic reform," Dr Kemp said. "We granted women voting rights 30 years before Britain and the US. Victoria pioneered secret voting at elections in 1856, which America later adopted as the Australian ballot system."

Topics students will study include the history of the Australian constitution, the role of parliament, cabinet and the courts, freedom of speech, religion, the role and responsibility of the governor general and the history of indigenous Australians.

Dr Hirst said: "We have a unit with a little game about King Charles and his parliament which has gone down well and which presents the notion that governments must be accountable and taxes must be voted by the people who are going to be taxed - that message has been made more palatable."

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