Citizenship must not be overlooked

18th July 1997 at 01:00
Tucked away at the back of the White Paper Excellence in Schools and completely unreported in the media last week was the announcement that the Government is concerned about the quality of citizenship education because it believes, quite rightly, that society needs citizens who know their rights and responsibilities and support our democratic way of life.

This is to be welcomed - but I can't forget that, 10 years ago, the National Curriculum Council's very constructive guidance on citizenship as a cross-curricular theme was swamped by the weight of other reforms and ran into the sand. Will citizenship once again languish at the back of the queue for attention? I have a very strong sense of deja vu.

I am not arguing against the White Paper's emphasis on literacy and numeracy; but public education has always been seen as a much wider project. Teachers are charged with promoting pupils' spiritual, moral and social development. This accords with what they themselves feel and with what society expects.

It is also supported by what the Government said before the election about wanting to restore a sense of national community. So I admit I was hoping that the White Paper would address more directly the historic failure of the British education system to deal adequately with civic, social, moral and political education.

Citizenship helps students understand what it means to belong to communities, to understand the language of morality, of rights and of responsibilities towards others. It fosters respect for law, justice, democracy and for different opinions, values and cultures. Citizenship, taught properly, encourages rational debate, philosophical enquiry and critical thinking.

Citizenship engages students because it encourages them to reflect on and understand their own experiences. It can help many students to come to terms with being members of particular ethnic or religious groups at the same time as being full members of the national community. In particular, it is one curriculum slot in which the mutual exploration of problems is rather more important than learning a set of right answers.

Having said that, citizenship education is not a value-free zone, and is more than capable of offering intellectual rigour.

A whole-school framework for citizenship education will also support the establishment of calm and orderly schools where pupils feel they have a stake in maintaining an environment free from violence and intimidation. Anti-social behaviour is one of the biggest contributors to poor learning and the failure of schools. So, far from being an add-on, it is time that citizenship was seen to be at the heart of education and essential to the quality of community life.

According to the White Paper the Government intends to set up a consultative committee on citizenship education. In case I am not invited to be on it, here is what I hope it will do: * Make sure that time is set aside each week for citizenship education in both primary and secondary schools. This will integrate well with language work and the development of thinking and discussion skills, so it need not be too time-consuming.

* Provide help to schools in developing programmes of study that are continuous and progressive across the entire age range.

* Raise the status of citizenship education by sorting out the mish-mash that in many schools passes for personal and social education, and by working to end the current situation in which citizenship is taught by so many unwilling and untrained teachers.

* Look at the professional development of teachers so that we can strive in the medium-term for at least one well-trained specialist in every school.

* Support curriculum development in this area through research and experimentation.

Young people, after all, are learning all the time - and sometimes from very dubious sources - about the ways of our complex modern world. Surely they are entitled to more help than we often give them in sorting the wheat from the chaff, and to resist what has been called the "tabloid culture".

Civic education used to be thought of as learning about the structure of Parliament; but this is a topic meaningless to most of us, unless we really understand and genuinely care about what happens in and to our community.

Don Rowe is director of curriculum resources at the Citizenship Foundation.

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