Citizens of tomorrow

24th October 2014 at 01:00

The post-mortem on the independence referendum is focusing on its long-term political implications, but other important issues have direct and more immediate significance for what happens in our schools.

Throughout my career, the question of how or even whether schools should teach citizenship has been hotly debated. The discussion centred on whether political education should be a distinct subject or was better developed across the curriculum.

Bitter battles were fought over the introduction of modern studies; resistance often underpinned by the self-interest of history and geography teachers whose subjects were being squeezed by this interloper. Headteachers and timetablers, caught in this curricular crossfire, often struggled towards solutions that owed more to pragmatism than principle.

The matter may appear to have been resolved by the prominent place given to responsible citizenship in Curriculum for Excellence. Each of the capacities is integral to the development of participative and ethical citizenship. Informed citizens will be successful learners. Active citizens will have the confidence and desire to contribute.

The discourse surrounding the referendum has both re-emphasised the vital importance of this aspect of CfE and introduced a different dimension. The nature of identity and citizenship has been at the heart of much of the referendum debate. In particular, we have had to consider the kind of political and constitutional arrangements that would best reflect our beliefs and understanding of these issues. What does citizenship mean in an increasingly interdependent yet highly competitive world? How can our multiple identities as Scots, Britons, Europeans and citizens of the world best be given political and constitutional expression?

What, then, are the implications for how such issues should be represented in the curriculum? First, they are vital and cannot be ducked.

Second, we should not be afraid to introduce controversial matters into the curriculum. Issues such as social justice, climate change, genetic engineering and the impact of technology are central to all our lives and to young people's futures.

Third, the enthusiasm of young people and the quality of their contributions during the referendum debate should dispel any doubts about their desire and ability to engage with such matters seriously. It seems self-evident that the voting age for general elections should now be extended to 16- and 17-year-old students. That is a hugely exciting prospect that presents schools with both opportunities and challenges.

I feel immense pride in how young people rose to the challenge of the referendum. Their response reflects well on themselves and the work of their teachers and should give us great confidence for the future.

Graham Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Glasgow and author of the review Teaching Scotland's Future

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