Citizenship as a subject is still findingits feet, but supporters have high hopes for it, reports Michael Shaw
Can a citizenship lesson once a week stop British children growing up to become suicide bombers? It seems an ambitious goal for a subject that became compulsory in secondary schools only four years ago.
Yet education ministers recently launched a review into how citizenship is taught, as part of a drive to prevent home-grown terrorism and a repeat of last year's London bombings.
Dina Kiwan, a researcher at London university's institute of education, said the perceived purpose of the subject had shifted significantly during its short existence. She interviewed more than 30 key figures involved in its introduction, including Sir Bernard Crick, whose 1998 report laid the subject's foundations, and David Blunkett, a former student of Sir Bernard, who made it statutory when he was education secretary.
Dr Kiwan said the main reasons given for teaching citizenship originally were concerns about political apathy among young people and broader fears that society was slipping into "a moral crisis". "References were made to key events in the early 1990s, mainly concerning young people, things like the James Bulger killing, the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence, and the Dunblane massacre," she said.
Dr Kiwan said that events since 2000, which have included the 911 attacks, last July's tube bombings and inter-faith riots in Birmingham, appeared to have changed attitudes towards citizenship.
"If you asked people now, diversity and immigration issues would have shot up the agenda, but when I was carrying out the interviews they were not really on the radar," she said.
Dr Kiwan made her comments this month when she appeared at the Commons education select committee, which is midway through an inquiry on the state of citizenship education in schools. MPs on the committee have been keen to ask whether such lessons can stop future suicide bombings or race riots.
Marc Verlot, head of public policy for the Commission for Racial Equality, said the instigators of violence might not be affected by schools.
"However, you do have people who are watching, who are the silent majority and schools can touch them and they can look at these events from a different stance," he said. "I am not saying you can put an actual relationship between what happens on the street and what happens in the curriculum. However, I think it does make a difference in the long-term."
Sir Bernard told The TES that asking whether citizenship lessons could stop terrorism was "a silly question".
"I do believe it will create more civic awareness in our nation," he said.
"But the motives of terrorists and suicide bombers are very specific and outside the control of schools. They are a matter for the police or the intelligence services."
Sir Bernard admitted he had been deeply concerned about the future of citizenship two years ago, fearing the Government had gone cold on the idea. But he has been heartened by recent announcements, including plans to introduce a full GCSE and A-level course in 2008.
A short GCSE course, worth half the normal qualification, has seen a steady increase in applicants. Fifty thousand teenagers are expected to take it this year, up from 38,000 in 2005.
The Department for Education and Skills has also recently paid for 20,000 copies of a glossy 230- page teachers' handbook on citizenship to be sent to schools.
Chris Waller, the Association of Citizenship Teachers' professional officer, said that headteachers could no longer dismiss the subject as a passing fad, partly because of greater pressure from inspectors.
"2006 has been the tipping-point year for citizenship, the year its future became assured," he said. "It is still in its infancy and there are still challenges. But then arguments about when the history taught in schools should start and end have been going on for more than 300 years."
Mr Waller and Sir Bernard said they feared that the Government's drive to promote Britishness through citizenship, possibly by including a stronger focus on history, risked turning the subject into civics.
Tony Breslin, chairman of the Citizenship Foundation, said that caution was also needed to ensure that a focus on nationality did not alienate pupils.
"I was working with a group of teenage students, one of whom was white, and it annoyed him when I mentioned the word 'citizenship', because to him that meant 'whether my mates can stay in this country or not'," he said. "The word carries a lot of baggage."
Citizenship teachers such as Mr Waller argue that the purpose of the subject has not changed, and that the best lessons will always be topical and unafraid of touching on controversial current issues.
The lessons would not automatically stop pupils becoming suicide bombers, Mr Waller said, just as they could not guarantee that more young people would vote. But they would make students better informed.
This same defence is being used for an education pack called 911: the main chance, developed by teachers in Waltham Forest. It includes worksheets asking pupils to choose alternative targets to the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon that terrorists could attack in America and in Britain, and weapons that might be used.
Controversy over the pack may change the tone of critics' attacks on citizenship. Instead of being asked if they are preventing suicide bombers, citizenship teachers may find themselves accused of helping to train them.