Citizens' rite is the wrong way to go

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
Citizenship was always seen as a way to enable young people to play an active part in public life. But last week's review of the subject seems to suggest a subtle but significant shift - from education for citizenship to education about citizenship.

Sir Keith Ajegbo's review argues that a fourth strand, "identity and diversity: living together in the UK", be added. As such, it risks turning the subject into a rite of passage, along the lines of the Home Office citizenship tests.

It is no co-incidence that the handbook on which these tests are based, Life in the United Kingdom, is almost identical to the name of the proposed new strand. The report advocates a closer relationship between citizenship and history; indeed, this is further evidence of the shift.

There is a risk that this emphasis on the historical may tilt citizenship away from its original purpose. Good citizenship education is issue-based.

It starts from matters that concern young people and is informed by a range of contexts, including the historical. Sir Keith's recommendations may persuade some teachers to start with the historical context and then (if there is time) apply it to contemporary political issues. But this is unlikely to be either engaging or empowering.

The shift reflects a change in priorities from addressing voter apathy and political disillusionment to the current concern with community cohesion following the July 7 bombings in 2005. It is clear that the Government believes that lessons to promote British values and a grasp of our histories will boost community cohesion and deter extremism. But threats to community cohesion come less from cultural detachment than from political alienation.

If the Government wants community cohesion, it needs to promote political empowerment. We begin to care about our communities when we feel we have a voice and a stake in them. The irony is that citizenship education, as it stands, is well-placed to promote political engagement and community cohesion. All the Government need do is put into practice the welcome recommendations that the subject be taught by specialist teachers in discrete curriculum time, that more opportunities be created for professional development and training, that heads show more commitment to it and pupils' opinions be listened to and acted on.

We need to remain loyal to the original purpose of citizenship as an educational process that empowers young people: a society in which people feel they have a genuine voice and influence is a society at peace with itself.

Pete Pattisson taught citizenship in London for five years and is now a journalist

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