Fledgling life skills programme comes under cash pressure just as post-16s need it. Joe Clancy reports
Some lecturers regard citizenship as the new religion, designed to provide a moral framework to guide young people in an increasingly secular society.
Others disregard it as the gospel of New Labour, proclaiming the doctrines of political correctness that have no place in further education.
Now the debate is about to reach a new intensity as government ministers consider whether to continue funding the post-16 Citizenship Development programme that has been piloted in 28 colleges and 16 training providers during the past three years.
Right now just over pound;1 million has been allocated to funding the citizenship programme that is managed by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, with pound;40,000 provided for each individual project.
Under citizenship programmes, students are establishing forums and organising conferences to tackle issues involved in running their college, and in the wider community.
They are looking at issues like vandalism, recycling, refugees, crime prevention, human rights, and the democratic process, and gaining in confidence and self esteem in the process.
Liz Craft, citizenship consultant for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said the aim is to equip young people with the ability "to negotiate, to discuss issues and take responsible action within their community".
But concern is mounting that the funding may cease as the government faces pressures to find cash to finance other areas in education.
Julia Fiehn, the citizenship project manager at the LSDA, said: "We would like to see the citizenship programme expanded next year, but it does depend on getting ministerial approval.
"The citizenship programme has been motivating, engaging and encouraging young people to believe they can make a difference to their own lives and that of their communities.
"I believe it is vital that we build on what young people know by doing citizenship in schools where it is a statutory part of the national curriculum."
Sir Bernard Crick, whose two reports in 1998 and in 2000 instigated the post-16 curriculum programme, shares her view.
He said: "It will be crazy to have citizenship as a compulsory part of the curriculum up to 16 and then to discontinue at the very age when young people come to be most affected.
"It would be quite shameful to abandon it just at the time when the need is greatest to involve young adults in active citizenship.
"This should be a major thrust of government policy. It has got to put its money where its mouth is, because figures about young people being sceptical about the political process are really alarming."
Sir Bernard led an advisory group which recommended, in two reports published in 1998 and 2000, that active citizenship education should be an entitlement for all 16 to 19-year-olds as well as school pupils.
It based its recommendations on the need to counteract "the worrying levels of apathy, ignorance and cynicism about public life".
It stressed the need for young people to "learn about their rights and responsibilities, to understand how society works, and to enhance the skills they need in order to be active citizens".
The pilot began in September 2001, involving 22 school and 13 youth groups as well as the colleges and training providers, many operating in partnership groups.
The focus is on encouraging young people to take a more active role in democracy, and raising awareness of political and social issues.
Some colleges involved in the pilot are preparing contingency plans to continue a citizenship programme even if funding dries up.
Mike James of Tameside City Pride, a consortium of three colleges and one school in Manchester, said: "We are talking about diverting funds from entitlement allowances that we get as an further education college. But if we did that we would have to reduce the amount of citizenship than we currently offer.
"It would have to be a shortened programme that might not cover the sort of issues we want students to get the chance to explore."
His colleague Tom Holden Rowley said: "Colleges have recognised that there are very few things that link students across the academic divide on all levels. Citizenship does create a student cohesion which is worth paying for."