Far more than a token gesture

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Jenny Wales argues that a genuine commitment to student participation improves attitude to school and raises attainment

Citizenship co-ordinators often complain that no one will take them seriously. Their schools have other priorities and the subject is low on the list. But the experience of Chamberlayne Park School in Southampton shows how staff and senior management can be persuaded to change their attitudes.

Chamberlayne Park is a school in challenging circumstances: 25 per cent of students have free school meals and 41 per cent have special needs.

Ten years ago it was a girls' school on the verge of closure, but the decision was taken to keep it open and introduce boys. The last all-girl year group left in 1998.

With Richard Hilary as the new head, the school has changed beyond recognition. It has grown from a school of 262 to one of 1,000 students; by 2004, Ofsted reported: "Standards are rising overall and GCSE results are amongst the most improved in England in 2003." Citizenship provision was described as "excellent".

Richard has worked hard to create a school with a citizenship culture. The subject is taught by year heads, and the lessons are the first to appear on their timetables. All departments are expected to identify and report on their contributions to citizenship.

There is a strong sense of participation and identity. The school council, the house system and year groupings all give students a sense of belonging.

The school council is not just a token gesture. It has a budget of Pounds 50,000 - a real symbol of trust.

The money comes from various pots in the budget. The bulk is from the environment budget so the students have an interest in looking after the school and its surroundings. When the toilets were vandalised, there was less to spend on outings. The new minibus was bought from the budget and the whole school worked on its specification. Should it have a ramp for wheelchairs? Should it be blue or white?

Research carried out by Derry Hanam ("Participation and responsible action for all students" in Teaching Citizenship, Association for Citizenship Teaching, Spring 2003) shows that participation offers schools and students more than the benefits of carrying out activities with others. It gives them a sense of self-esteem and belonging which improves attitudes to school and enhances learning in other subjects.

The study examined 12 schools with a "rich combination of participative experiences for significant numbers of students of all ages, genders, academic abilities and social backgrounds". It explored associations between participation and attendance, exclusion and attainment at GCSE as well as questioning heads, teachers and students.

In comparison with schools in similar circumstances, the sample demonstrated better outcomes on attendance, exclusion and overall attainment. The head teachers all considered that "student participation impacts beneficially on self-esteem, motivation, sense of ownership and empowerment and that this, in turn, enhances attainment". Teachers expressed similar views and some gave examples of the "transforming" impact on some students.

At Chamberlayne Park, citizenship underpins the curriculum. Richard Hilary and Adrian Deasey, the assistant head who is responsible for citizenship, have woven it through activities both within and beyond the curriculum.

They consider it to be the basis for developing a successful community in which everyone takes responsibility for their own actions and watches out for others in practical ways. Richard can be seen round the cloakrooms with the litter pickers. If he is prepared to take such care of the environment, others should, too.

A citizenship culture begins in small ways and needs commitment to become embedded. The Chamberlayne Park experience shows the importance of a committed senior management team and co-ordinator. Successful strategies have included: l Sessions with members of staff to show how citizenship can add value to learning rather than using up precious time.

* Presentations to parents to demonstrate how working within a citizenship culture will help their children.

* Contributions to governors' meetings explaining what is going. Work out who might become your champion. Having support always helps when you really want to do things - especially if there is money involved.

The staff and students at Chamberlayne Park are lucky. They have a head who demonstrates real commitment and expects everyone else to do so. When you walk through the door of Chamberlayne Park, you know there's something special going on. That something is citizenship.

* Go to www.nuffieldcurriculumcentre.org and follow the links to Citizenship

Jenny Wales is director of Education for Citizenship at the Nuffield Foundation

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