Citizenship for sceptics

20th December 2002 at 00:00
An international survey of young people's attitudes showsa lack of interest in civic involvement, says David Kerr

Citizenship was introduced as a new statutory subject in September, bringing England into line with most countries across the world. The subject has already attracted considerable comment. Damian Green, the Conservative's education spokesman, has described it as "mumbo-jumbo", while David Hargreaves, former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has called for more rigour in its education underpinnings.

Certainly, as schools get to grips with this new subject, there is still conjecture as to what "effective" citizenship education will look like in practice. However, little is known about what young people think about citizenship issues and practices.

Well, the good news is that we now have a much clearer picture of this, thanks to the citizenship education study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. The study is the largest-ever undertaken in citizenship education, involving more than 90,000 14-year-olds, their teachers and heads in 28 countries, including England.

Although the international comparisons are newsworthy, the national findings are of greater interest. For the first time, we have a complete picture of English young people's levels of civic knowledge and understanding, their skills and attitudes, and how they feel about political issues. It is vital that schools and teachers take into account the core messages from the report in planning citizenship education.

So what do young people think about citizenship? Here are seven key findings.

* Fourteen-year-olds are not convinced of the value of conventional forms of democratic engagement. There is scepticism among students in England about such forms, with the exception of voting, and they have only moderate interest in politics. How are we going to convince young people that democratic engagement in society is worthwhile?

* In most countries, including England, young people have an understanding of fundamental democratic values and institutions, but there is evidence that more sophisticated ideas about the political process and the workings of democratic institutions elude them. How are we going to help students to develop depth of understanding about the democratic process?

* There is a positive correlation between civic knowledge and participation in democratic life. Specifically, the greater students' civic knowledge, the more likely they are to participate in political and civic activities as adults. How can we improve students' civic knowledge in ways that interest them and encourage them to participate?

* Schools and community organisations have untapped potential to influence the civic preparation of young people. Schools are part of the everyday experiences of young people. They throw up issues that matter to students and give them a chance to address these issues through "real" actions. How can we give students more opportunities to address issues that matter to them and build their belief that they can improve things in school?

* Schools that model democratic values and practices, and encourage students to discuss issues in the classroom and take an active role in the life of the school, are most effective in promoting students' civic knowledge and engagement. However, this approach is not the norm for many students at present. How can we encourage more schools and teachers to develop an active and participatory approach to citizenship at whole school and individual classroom level?

* The majority of 14-year-olds in England are positive about women's and immigrants' rights. However, there is a minority of students with negative attitudes that are discriminatory and contrary to the law. How should schools and teachers handle this minority of students and what are the contexts in our society which give rise to such negative attitudes?

* There is a considerable gap between the perceptions of students, teachers and headteachers about citizenship experiences in schools. Students are much less positive about such experiences than teachers and teachers less positive than heads. How can we narrow the gap between student, teacher and headteacher experiences of citizenship in schools?

Taken together, these seven findings and questions set out a clear agenda for developing citizenship in schools. They confirm the importance of putting young people at the heart of citizenship education and of taking a whole-school approach. They point to effective citizenship as that which engages directly with students' interests and concerns. They also underline the central role of schools in developing students' civic knowledge and participation.

David Kerr is a principal research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research. The full report is available from DfES at www.dfes. gov.ukresearch

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