Action replay

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Peter Brett finds solutions to the subject's teething problems

There is plenty of evidence that many teachers are finding it difficult to pin down the blend of knowledge, skills and participation that combine to support a coherent programme of citizenship in schools. Pity the 16-year-old, therefore, trying to make sense of what is being asked of them in a GCSE citizenship studies course. The good news, however, is that all three examination boards reported many successes from the first two years of the citizenship studies specifications:

* "The majority of centres embraced the philosophy of the course and encouraged candidates to plan, undertake and evaluate an activity that explicitly emphasised participation in order to understand concepts and issues relating to citizenship" (AQA).

* "Most students wrote at length and with enthusiasm about what they had achieved... the impression was that almost all candidates participated in a positive way, often in activities which would not normally have found a place in a classroom-based curriculum" (OCR).

* "The commitment to citizenship studies from many of the staff involved was inspirational... This was widely acknowledged by the candidates themselves" (EdExcel).

Nevertheless, some common difficulties for candidates have emerged from all three examination boards. Some of these are generic and are apparent across the GCSE landscape - therefore, inevitably, some candidates were unable to demonstrate depth of knowledge on key topics while others found the demands of extended writing a challenge.

Other difficulties, however, relate to subject-specific demands.

Specifically, students would benefit from clear guidance from teachers in three areas: making the best possible job of their coursework; identifying key citizenship subject knowledge and concepts; and structuring extended writing in the context of citizenship themes and issues.

Coursework is at the heart of GCSE citizenship studies - it represents 40 per cent of the final mark, but since students also write about their experience of active citizenship in the exam paper, it could be seen to represent 55 per cent.

All of the exam boards offer flexible and exciting coursework options with an expectation of active participation by candidates in the school andor wider community. Coursework projects require a clear citizenship focus, evidence of planning and research, and an evaluation which reflects the project's strengths and ways in which it might be improved.

Success in this area requires students to adopt a structured approach. To do themselves justice they need to see a variety of examples of what good citizenship studies coursework looks like. They also need to be aware of common pitfalls. For example, work experience provides a good opportunity to undertake a citizenship-related investigation, but simply doing the work experience (because it is participative) does not make it citizenship.

Working with others to raise money for charity can also be a good project, but to make it truly effective requires some research into the structure of the charity and how and why the charity makes decisions about what projects to support.

All three exam boards, in different ways, suggest that students should be encouraged to understand and use the language of citizenship from an early point in their courses and to revisit these ideas in different contexts.

Units of work on, for example, identity, voting, politics, legalhuman rights and the meaning of "active citizenship" can be seen as bedrock topics. Core concepts include words such as fairness, justice, freedom, power, tolerance, democracy and equality.

A key challenge for teachers is to find active and engaging ways of exploring concepts like these. One way for students to deepen their understanding of social and political issues is to build up vocabulary palettes. So, for example, for global citizenship, a vocabulary palette might include: developing countries; United Nations; fair trade; disaster relief; sustainable development; climate change; global village; international aid; multinational companies; interdependence; World Trade Organisation; global inequality; and participation.

Finally, students need to practise structuring their writing on citizenship themes and writing to argue. As with most GCSEs, a premium is placed on literary skills and the ability to marshall arguments and analysis supported by a range of examples. This sounds rather dry and removed from the exciting realm of active citizenship, but it needn't be.

Literacy - to put it crudely - is a "doing" skill. Crucially, literacy empowers. It secures young people access to information bases and grants them a measure of independence. Without it there are dangers of at least partial disenfranchisement. Students are more likely to be able to become effective citizens and "make a difference" if they can support their good ideas with examples and evidence.

As with revising for any exam, it is important that students know what examiners are looking for in order to gain maximum credit for what they know, understand and can do. Citizenship is a distinctive kind of subject area and perhaps needs a different kind of thinking about how it is revised. Certainly, it makes sense to "activate" the revision process.

Simply staring at notes and trying to memorise everything does not work and gets boring. Better to do things with notes - highlight, make bullet points or create new spider-diagrams. Physically playing with information helps students to remember things better. They can also pair up with a fellow student and create revision quizzes for each other.

Peter Brett is chair of examiners for the AQA GCSE citizenship studies short course and a DfES regional adviser for citizenship CPD

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