‘Rethinking citizenship is vital in the age of Brexit’

It’s not enough to rely on ‘British values’ – our pupils need proper support when navigating our world’s choppy political waters

Neil Hopkins

Brexit, citizenship, politics, DfE

Brexit continues to fester within our national population. Families and communities are more divided than ever. And it’s crucial that we are educating children about our multicultural society. Citizenship education is where this can come into play.

A democratic curriculum should see citizenship as integral to all learning – but the aim must be to encourage students to develop the attitudes and skills that are necessary for participating in a democratic society. How citizenship is accommodated within the curriculum will depend upon the age of the students and the environment in which the learning takes place.

As I have advocated elsewhere, using John Dewey as a forerunner, the notion of citizenship needs to be as expansive as appropriate, encompassing the local, national and international in its direction and scope. Students should be encouraged to see themselves as citizens beyond the confines of local and national borders. This is especially important in a political environment where Brexit, the fear of terrorism and radicalisation, and the potential breakup of the United Kingdom itself are major aspects of public discourse.

Students and young people need a curriculum that helps them to navigate the difficult political waters that surround these issues and enables them to debate key questions on the subject of individual identity in a multicultural state.

It is not enough to rely on the implementation of "British" values to address such concerns – this term is itself problematic and has imperial overtones, especially for those students who have a heritage where British domination is part of the historical legacy. "British" values also assumes a cohesion between the constituent nations of the United Kingdom that is being increasingly challenged as devolution has given Scotland and Wales a national forum in which to articulate a growing sense of political and cultural confidence. A citizenship education that only emphasises "Britishness" will do a major disservice all students: people’s sense of identity in the contemporary world cannot be fitted neatly into the boundaries of a given nation state.

Citizenship should be part of a "whole organisational approach" rather than isolated within the confines of a curriculum area or subject. Debate raised within the classroom can translate across to other aspects of working together within an institution. In this sense, the students are able to become stakeholder participants within a wider conception of citizenship education. Schools and colleges are often already very effective in facilitating this more expansive view of citizenship education through the guise of student councils, parliaments and, where appropriate, student governors. These forums give students the opportunity to engage in formal debate, stand for election, vote for specific candidates and represent others on school-wide bodies.

Through such practices, students are being socialised into what democratic decision making entails – the respect for other people’s opinions, the need to allow turn taking, the search for compromise to ensure an agreement is reached. As part of this, it is also important that schools and colleges do not shy away from controversial issues. Teachers are understandably concerned about being vulnerable to the charge of political bias in the classroom – but this worry should not stifle the need children and young people have to discuss events that are happening in the world. We must allow pupils to voice their opinions and have a stake in the decisions that are made in their schools and colleges, and the communities they are part of.

One possible solution to the tension between democratic participation in the curriculum and administrative overkill is offered by a team of researchers based at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. As part of their final report, Children, their World, their Education, the review recommended that 70 per cent of a primary curriculum is devised nationally, and 30 per cent locally. This would have the advantage of having parts of the curriculum that are consistent across localities (an important consideration as populations become increasingly mobile) but giving space for innovation and experiment where individual schools or districts can tailor the learning to their specific contexts.

The same idea could equally apply to the secondary phase and even further education. This move towards greater local control over school and college curriculum and policy has the benefit of putting democratic citizenship into action at a level where teachers, parents, students and members of the local community will have a strong vested interest. Concerns over the "transferability" or standardisation of the curriculum are, hopefully, addressed by part of the curriculum being national and part local – in some respects, it takes the best from both the national curriculum and the move towards academisation. By themselves, each system can be either too restrictive or too random.

What I propose is a model where there are elements of the national and the local to enable important stakeholders to have a significant say in their schools and colleges. By doing so, democratic accountability is encouraged and educational institutions become sites for a more expansive notion of citizenship education.

Neil Hopkins is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Bedfordshire. His latest book, Democratic Socialism and Education: New Perspectives on Policy and Practice will be published by Springer in Summer 2019.

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