Finding the common ground

21st May 2004 at 01:00
Patrick McNeill looks at the interdependence of citizenship and key skills

Common skills, core skills, basic skills, skills for life, key skills, and now Mike Tomlinson, chair of the Working Group on 14-19 Reform, is talking about generic skills. If there is one theme that links recent developments in 14-19 education, it has to be "skills".

Since 2000, the emphasis has been on the six Qualifications and Curriculum Authority key skills: communication, application of number, information technology, working with others, improving own learning and performance, and problem-solving. At one time it was argued that citizenship should become the seventh key skill. There was some logic in this, as two of the three strands of the citizenship programmes of study at key stages 3 and 4 are "developing skills of enquiry and communication" and "developing skills of participation and responsible action" (the third being "knowledge and understanding about becoming informed citizens").

While official rhetoric refers to "active" citizens, the real aim of the citizenship movement is to encourage "effective" citizens. It's easy to be active; it's making sure the activity leads somewhere that is the problem.

Being effective means making changes and getting things done. But what skills are needed for this? How do these relate to key skills? "Communication" obviously overlaps with "enquiry and communication", but it is the wider key skills (the last three in the list) that are, quintessentially, citizenship skills.

Citizenship happens because people work with others; it is effective because people develop insight into their own ways of learning and doing (improve own learning and performance) and because they tackle problems (problem-solving). This is illustrated in the grid shown opposite, which maps the wider key skills standards (as revised for 2004) against the "developing skills of participation and responsible action" strand in the citizenship programmes of study.

But a mapping exercise is only an audit. The real common ground lies in what Tony Breslin, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, has referred to as "not just a new subject, but a new type of subject" - a definition that applies to both key skills and citizenship, and from which they both derive their energy and experience their problems. What is this common ground?

InnovationBoth face the usual responses to curriculum innovation, ranging from evangelical through to realistic, cynical and downright hostile. This is compounded by their introduction at a time when "innovation fatigue" is widespread in the educational world.

Teaching and learning Both are committed to active and student-centred styles of teaching and learning. You cannot teach democracy undemocratically; you cannot teach skills didactically.

Assessment and qualifications Both are concerned with processes and experiences rather than products, so standards are more difficult to specify and to assess. It is only in 2004 that the QCA has felt able to pilot the wider key skills as qualifications.

Integration or bolt-on? To be effective, both initiatives have to be integrated into mainstream subjects and enrichment activities, rather than bolted on. But while bolting-on leads to marginalisation, integration creates the risk of being "everywhere but nowhere".

Image and perception Both suffer from an image problem, based on misperceptions (sometimes wilful) of what they are about. Citizenship has to distance itself from the old-style civics, whereas key skills has to distance itself from maths and English. Civics was about knowledge; citizenship is also about skills. Maths and English are about underpinning techniques; key skills are about using these techniques.

Status, recognition and currency Both citizenship and key skills experience a contradiction between the rhetoric that stresses their importance and the reality of an unwillingness in some schools and colleges to give them the practical support to match the rhetoric.

The question is not whether key skills should be delivered through citizenship or whether citizenship should be delivered through key skills.

The question is how can the two be delivered in such a way that their interdependence, both with each other and with the curriculum as a whole, is recognised, exploited and clearly apparent to students.

Patrick McNeill is an education and training consultant

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