Braveheart or good citizen?;Platform

20th February 1998 at 00:00
Donald Gray puts the case for civic education in therun-up to Holyrood.

Civic education is not taught in Scottish schools. At least so I was told by a member of the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department some months ago. This, he said, was the reason why Scotland will not be participating in the international study of civic education currently being conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

Of course, in one sense he is right: civic education, as a subject, is not taught in Scotland, just as it is not taught as a specific subject in many of the 29 countries currently associated with the study. However, examination of the component parts of what constitutes civic education, essentially a cross-curricular subject, reveals that many of these elements are included in subjects such as personal and social development, history, modern studies and moral and religious education. Perhaps the reality behind the decision is rather that civic education is a low priority area, not considered worthy of investment in terms of time or money.

If this is the case, I would find that rather worrying given that children in Scotland are arguably living through the most significant constitutional change for more than 200 years. They have also experienced, if not first hand then certainly through the media, dramatic changes in Europe in the past 10 years. These young people are expected to be the active citizens in the new Scotland, within the new Europe, in the first decades of the new millennium. What evidence do we have that they are prepared for this, and what can we learn from the experiences of others?

South of the border, the White Paper on Excellence in Schools, for which there is no Scottish equivalent, recognises citizenship education as an important area of personal and social education that requires more work and states: "Schools can help to ensure that young people feel that they have a stake in our society and the community in which they live by teaching them the nature of democracy and the duties, responsibilities and rights of citizens."

An advisory group to discuss citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools has been set up and is chaired by Professor Bernard Crick (page 14). Responses to the White Paper from organisations such as the Citizenship Foundation and a collective response by Charter 88, Operation Black Vote, the Local Government Association and the Institute for Citizenship Studies indicate a reasonable degree of consensus about what citizenship education should cover.

Not just knowledge about the democratic process and important institutions within the UK and Europe, but also the encouragement of participation in the community and the development of awareness of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. However, there are still questions about the most effective way this should be delivered. This is one of the aspects of civic education which the IEA is investigating - how different societies, different cultures, with differing school structures approach this topic.

Effective citizenship, and what constitutes responsible citizenship, is important, not only to governments and policy-makers but also to the public in general. To participate effectively in the community presupposes some knowledge of the community and its governance. It requires the necessary skills to be able to function in an often complex society and to make responsible and informed choices frequently involving conflicting values.

Scotland is not immune from anti-social acts, bigotry and racism. We see a rise in neo-Nazism across Europe and the existence of intolerance and discrimination. Although such attitudes are a product of society as a whole, and must be tackled with a variety of initiatives throughout society, schools have an important role to play. The IEA study is grounded in a firm theoretical framework which recognises the complex interaction of school, home, community, media and neighbourhood in the formation of knowledge, attitudes and values.

Such complexity is extremely difficult to unravel in a study of this kind, but concentration on the contribution of schools and young persons' knowledge, attitudes and levels of participation in society can do much to indicate how schools might make an effective contribution. Policy-makers often operate with little up to date information even about important aspects of civic knowledge, attitudes and behaviour in their own countries. On a cross-national basis, it is even more limited.

The first study of this kind was conducted in nine countries by the IEA in 1971. Judith Torney-Purta, reporting on the findings, recognised that there were considerable problems in both collecting data and setting standards in the affective domain, which much of citizenship education is concerned with. However, analysis of the data, after taking into account home background, age, sex and type of school, suggested that classroom practices such as encouraging opinion expressing and an open climate related well to cognitive achievement, greater participation in political discussions and less authoritarian attitudes among 14-year-olds and those about to leave for university. On the other hand, "students who reported the frequent practice of patriotic rituals in their schools (ceremonies with the flag or singing patriotic songs) tended to be less knowledgeable and more authoritarian than students who spent less time on patriotic observances." These findings were found to be remarkably similar across nine OECD countries with different educational and political contexts. (Beware the Braveheart and the Flower of Scotland mentality.) The new study involves 29 countries ranging from Eastern Europe to the Far East and South America, thus providing greater political and cultural diversity than in the first study. But however sceptical one may be about how much a comparative empirical study of this kind can usefully inform (as Wilson Flood was about the IEATIMSS study in his Platform article of January 16), I have no doubt that the research in each country will contribute a great deal to its own civic studies programmes.

A regular part of the development of the theories, models and procedures used in the study is an Internet conference every three to four weeks involving participants as widely spread as Hong Kong, Europe and the United States. It is a great pity that Scotland declined the invitation to participate.

Our complacency is not shared in the south, nor by all in Scotland. The National Foundation for Educational Research in England is currently involved with the Government's advisory group. Here the Gordon Cook Foundation is organising a values education conference in Glasgow in May. It will have democracy and citizenship as a focus and the keynote address will be by Professor Crick. The narrow vision of the Scottish Office should broaden into renewed interest in civics when the study is completed in 2000, the year that the Scottish parliament is up and running.

Donald Gray is associate co-ordinator of the IEA Civic Education Study at Humboldt University in Berlin. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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