Can authority teach democratic values?
Bernard Crick, the biographer of George Orwell and chairman of the Government's Citizenship Task Force in England and Wales, said that "social and moral responsibility is the essential precondition for citizenship".
He accepted that "schools cannot remedy parental inadequacies" and that most values were mediated outwith schools. But, he said: "Political literacy implies a large `knowledge component' which has to be passed on to the next generation."
How schools should do this exercised many conference speakers, who shared Professor Crick's belief that values cannot be taught directly. "They must arise from experience if they are likely to affect behaviour," he said.
Henry Maitles, of Strathclyde University's social studies department, discussed the problem of "teaching pupils about democracy in an authoritarian institution like a school". He claimed that most Scottish teachers felt that they did not have a voice in their own schools. "We have to counter the feeling among parents that political education implies bias," he warned.
Involving pupils in school decisions "will make pupils students", argued Derry Hannam of Birmingham University. The former teacher described students as self-directed learners. He said they should be involved in negotiation, planning and curriculum development. "This involvement experientially reinforces citizenship as taught through history and modern studies."
Mr Hannam added: "If there was ever a case for listening to young people it is what has come out recently about abuse in children's homes. We don't make any systematic attempt to listen, even to S6 pupils".
Tom Dobie, of Strathclyde's Quality in Education Centre, believed pupil councils were a way forward. A study he carried out in Fife schools indicated that pupil councils encouraged young people to take responsibility in the life of the school, improved attitudes to school and gave staff insight to manage more effectively.
Carol Howarth, headteacher of Spittal Primary in South Lanarkshire, told delegates that her pupil council was working. Pupils' attitudes had improved, they felt free to offer ideas and suggestions that would be listened to by staff and they looked beyond the class to the whole school.
But in a political panel discussion, Liberal Democrat MP Donald Gorrie said he had had little success in encouraging pupil councils in his Edinburgh West constituency. "If you can make young people practise democracy, that's worth more than someone like me wittering on about civics," he said.