Teaching democracy, practising hypocrisy

The introduction of "citizenship" as a compulsory part of the curriculum has been meaningful for our daughter and her friends in ways which were probably never intended by her school nor, indeed, the Government which introduced it.

Like those other personal health and social education days, sex day and drugs day, citizenship day confirmed for our daughter that adults are hypocrites. Democracy, like sex, is to be preached about, but not practised. The school council is proudly paraded as an institution of school democracy, but when student participation in anti-war demonstrations is discussed, the school's attitude is that democracy, like war, is purely for studying in history lessons.

Our daughter has demonstrated a grasp of democracy since infancy. Then her extreme exercise of her democratic rights was as amusing as it is challenging (in the most positive sense) today. Not so at school. There, what was cute in nursery is regarded as mouthy in secondary school.

Recent discussions with teachers and her latest school report reveal that our daughter is now expected to grasp not democracy, but its limitations.

Teachers do not welcome the expression of strong political or social views by a young adult as an opportunity for discussion and debate. They view it as an opportunity to exercise authoritarianism of the "shut up and just do the work" variety.

For us, however, comments in our daughter's school reports merely confirm that beneath the strenuously cultivated brunette bimbette image, a thinking person is emerging. Someone who can study history with some understanding, see the social implications of scientific developments, debate the merits of modern literature, use RE as a forum to discuss peaceful co-existence of people with different beliefs. Not only is it a tribute to her character and upbringing, but it shows she is developing like any young adult.

Discussing various PHSE days with our daughter revealed that one of the few things students approved of on sex day was having a young, HIV-positive woman speak about the need for sexual responsibility and the consequences of lacking it.

Her dad and I less liked citizenship day's inclusion of members of the Metropolitan Police to discuss issues of crime and punishment. We have nightmarish recollections of police in schools, but then that was South Africa a couple of decades ago. Our daughter didn't think anything of it, so we let it go.

It came as no surprise, however, when careers education day provoked a response from our daughter even before the day dawned. The letter sent home indicated that planned activities included "leadership exercises" led by members of the British Army. I simply couldn't see what the heck the army had to do with teaching kids leadership.

Our daughter's objections were more thorough-going. First, she found it highly insensitive to bring members of an army involved in the occupation of a Muslim country into a school where many students are either practising Muslims, or have Muslim ancestry.

Second, she found it wrong when so many children and their families, regardless of ancestry or religion, were opposed to the illegal war and occupation in Iraq. Our daughter requested a letter withdrawing her from those parts of the day involving the army. Letters to the organising teacher, form tutor, head of year and headteacher were met by responses varying from totally ignoring it, to "But you don't really agree with your parents, do you?"

In other words, a brush-off implying that we are loony lefties brainwashing our child and expressing contempt for our democratic right to challenge pro-violence views. Contempt for our daughter, too, lay in the implication that she is, at 15, unable to think for herself and unable to understand the school's own lessons in democracy and call for its implementation.

It is contempt, ultimately, for her ability to form a considered opinion and to exercise her democratic right to act in accordance with that opinion.

Shereen Pandit is a short story writer and poet

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