The right time

Nicholas Pyke meets the chair of a new teaching association for citizenship

It all looks rather worrying. A new subject imposed by political dictat, lacking support from teachers and commanding very little time in an overcrowded curriculum. Compulsory it may well be, but citizenship looks unlikely to get so much as a dedicated slot in the timetable.

Does this mean it is set to join the ghosts of general studies and key skills - subjects ordered up by politicians but rejected by pupils and quietly ignored? David Barrs thinks not. Deputy head at the Anglo-European school in Ingatestone, Essex, David Barrs is also head of the Association for Citizenship Teaching, a professional body which has spent the past 10 months attempting to cement the subject into place. He is well aware of the gloomy precedents. But he argues there are many reasons citizenship will be different.

One of them is the formation of ACT - a step further than teachers of PSHE have ever got. It already has around 1,000 members and, in the shape of Professor Bernard Crick, boasts a celebrity academic as president. The association is clear about the task in hand, which is why David and his colleagues are working hard to demonstrate that it is a real subject, with an academic core.

"I don't want citizenship to become the rubbish bin that people drop their own agendas into - what Keith Joseph called 'the clutter in the curriculum'," he says. "We are a subject with a knowledge base. And in adopting it we're joining the ranks of other European countries which already have citizenship in the curriculum.

"At its heart there's an acceptance by most people in the citizenship movement that we're about placing young people in their society and their democracy."

In other words, it is not all about cutting youth crime, clearing litter or shopping for old people, welcome as they may be. Rather, it is a mixture of political literacy, ethics and active citizenship - which, he says, can take place in the school corridor as easily as the street.

"It's got all the features of a real subject which IT, for example, didn't have. It has the involvement of Ofsted, which will report on citizenship, and the Teacher Training Agency, which is training specialist teachers."

However, he accepts that it needs to be more than a cross-curricular theme, if it really is to take off. "Schools traditionally have been 'creative' in doing as they have been told to do," he says. "ACT would strongly recommend that there be discrete timetable management of citizenship if it's to effective and realise its potential."

The Anglo-European school where he works is unusual in having a long history of teaching citizenship. But David Barrs believes it is also gathering interest around the country, another reason for believing the subject is more than a flash in the pan. "There's a movement for citizenship which I think we're at the heart of," he says. "It's the fastest growing subject." It is certainly a matter of some political interest - not least thanks to the success of the Far Right in the French presidential elections. And that in turn goes to show the dangers of making too many claims for a subject which the French have taught for a long time.

"Clearly teaching citizenship is not the answer by itself. The French do have citizenship lessons - as you would expect them to have. Yet they still end up with these issues to address on a national stage," he says.

The French elections also raise the question of how a subject with so many political tentacles can steer clear of partisan teaching. "We're developing model policies in that respect. Unless teachers are prepared to address controversial issues, the subject won't achieve what it's setting out to do. The sort of people going to be teaching citizenship are established teachers, many of them no doubt have their own political views. But they're also professional people."

Association for Citizenship Teaching, HPDC, Queensbridge Building, Albion Drive, London E8 4ETEmail: 020 7241 7418

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