Kirkwall Grammar takes a panoramic approach in engaging its students in worldly issues, writes teacher John Devine
The deputy convener of Orkney Islands Council gave an explanation of the more arcane procedures of council chamber debate and then opened the floor to pupil councillors from Kirkwall Grammar to discuss the first policy paper before them.
There followed a deafening silence as the S1-S6 students looked sheepishly at one another and then up at us, their teachers, in the spectators' gallery. No hands were being raised and heads were being lowered. I was suddenly gripped by that heart-sinking feeling.
I don't know why - we had organised countless debates in the school and had never known pupils to be anything but voluble, no matter how esoteric the subject.
That was the thing that had troubled me every time I read another downbeat newspaper article lamenting the rise of an apolitical and self-absorbed young generation. It did not chime with my own experience. And anyway, how could we complain about pupils being inward-looking when schools provided little opportunity for them to engage actively with the issues of the community, country and world?
I need not have worried. An hour and a half later I was asked by a local councillor if we might extend the session as the pupils' contributions had been so numerous and lengthy that business was unlikely to be finished within the allotted time.
Two years ago Kirkwall Grammar introduced an annual Citizenship Day, which is organised by a team of staff and pupils to provide an opportunity to engage in social issues. This session the team instigated the council chamber debate.
The school's pupil council is a paradigm of participative democracy which has effected many changes in the school. But pupil councils also represent an ideal opportunity - often not seized - to make a connection between how we run our schools and the way we run our society. Kirkwall Grammar's collaboration with Orkney Islands Council has given the school's pupil councillors the opportunity to debate local issues in the community's own wellspring of democracy.
The idea was that pupils would take part in a mock council debate which would follow in every detail the procedures employed for local decision-making. Pupil representatives were issued with policy papers in advance, before debating them in the presence of council officials, including the directors of education, planning and finance, from whom they could seek clarification.
Despite the shaky start, the debate was conducted with remarkable insight and maturity and the decisions reached were the product of thoughtful consideration. For example, they finally opted for a centre for performing arts in preference to the initially more attractive leisure pool proposal.
The school was delighted with the debate but dissatisfied that the pupils'
views did not feed into the actual process of local decision-making.
However, we consider the event as only the beginning: next year we are hopeful that pupils will be a given a real budget to disburse and that in time the council might create mechanisms whereby young people can be guaranteed representation in decisions that have a direct impact on them.
As well as allowing pupils to participate in decision-making, Kirkwall Grammar has sought to create a real context for the development of their knowledge and understanding of the issues that will confront them as citizens when they leave school. For the past two years, members of the local community have been invited to make up a panel for a question time session with the fifth year pupils.
These events have taken place on Friday afternoons but that has not dampened the quality of discussion. The year groups have been clearly enthused, perhaps because the issues that they had touched on in various curriculum areas were taking shape in a real context. In fact, last session a heated discussion on leisure provision was reported in the local newspaper and led to a rethink on youth policy by the local leisure centre.
These are just two examples of activities the school employs to help its pupils make the link between what they experience in school and what happens in the outside world. There have been many others, including a surgery with the local MP, talks to science classes on sustainable development, and a knockout debating competition culminating on Citizenship Day with a debate on the role of the media, which was judged by former TES Scotland editor Willis Pickard, who also spoke to English classes on the subject.
A useful starting point for any school looking to develop citizenship - and that should be every school - is the Learning and Teaching Scotland discussion paper Education for Citizenship in Scotland. This attempts to define what is meant by "education for citizenship" and how it might take place in schools.
Any teacher reading it will find numerous examples in their school's current practice - curricular and extra-curricular - which would satisfy many of the criteria. However, what most schools lack is a panoramic approach, which makes explicit the connections across these practices and between them and local, national and global issues.
Kirkwall Grammar will continue with its annual Citizenship Day, which has provided an excellent focal point for activities that are embedded in the school's practice throughout the year. The next step will be to conduct an audit of on-going citizenship-related activities, whether curricular or extra-curricular, and perhaps streamline them.
One thing that will not be considered, however, is the creation of a citizenship subject area. This would run contrary to the reality that citizenship is a pervasive experience.
The most striking aspect about the debate in the council chamber was the realisation that the pupils were not just acting out the role of citizens, as they might that of a visitor to France in a modern languages class or of a job applicant in an English class. It was the real thing, not a dress rehearsal. In this respect, citizenship education seems quite different from, and potentially more exciting than, virtually anything else that goes on in schools.
John Devine is acting principal teacher of English at Kirkwall Grammar, Orkney