Grasping a rational view of citizenship

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Learning and Teaching Scotland's proposals have provoked a welcome and wide ranging debate on a vital part of the curriculum, says Pamela Munn.

The six-month period of consultation on the citizenship paper from Learning and Teaching Scotland ended last month. We are now in the midst of a systematic analysis of responses and are heartened by the interest shown.

Three national consultation conferences in Aberdeen, North Lanarkshire and Dundee have been well attended. There has been an opportunity to respond online and materials designed with Save the Children to encourage young people to make their views known. Local authorities have collected views from young people, teachers and parents. There has also been a vigorous debate in this newspaper about the framework the consultation paper sets out.

The framework provides for the development, monitoring and evaluation of education for citizenship. It does not propose the creation of a separate subject called "citizenship education". Nor does it set out a detailed prescription of the content of an education for citizenship curriculum.

Rather, it proposes key entitlements for all young people and systematic development of these key features. The paper recognises that much of what is happening in schools could be described as good education for citizenship. Indeed conferences by the Scottish Schools Ethos Network have illustrated an impressive range of bold and innovative work.

The paper advocates planned progression in the areas of knowledge and understanding, skills and competences, values and dispositions, and creativity and enterprise. It wants the ethos of school and pre-school settings to model practices inherent in democratic and participative communities. It poses some big questions about how schools can help to shape democracy and, not surprisingly, has provoked a wide-ranging response.

This is healthy and encouraging to those of us involved in the paper. Three main kinds of argument have challenged schools' ability to provide education for citizenship. One set of commentators has questioned the ability of teachers to deal with controversial contemporary issues. They argue that teachers will be accused of indoctrinating their pupils and suggest that education for citizenship can never have the objectivity of, say, English, history or maths. Modern studies teachers would no doubt take a sceptical view of such a concern.

It ight be argued that they are a special breed whose training and experience fits them for this kind of teaching and that other teachers do not have this knowledge and skill. I find that difficult to understand. Teachers of English, history, geography, religious and moral education, design and technology and science - to name but a few - deal with controversial questions all the time.

The paper does not suggest that teachers take a clear stand on environmental or other issues. It does suggest that schools should be places where contemporary issues are debated and young people helped to reach their own conclusions and defend them calmly and rationally.

A second set of commentators argues that schools, as organs of the state, have no role to play in education for citizenship. They see this as a crude attempt to impose a uniformity of views about the nature of society in much the same way as single-party states such as the former Soviet Union imposed Communist ideology. This is a serious charge that deserves critical evaluation. The review group goes out of its way to emphasise the importance of critical thinking, the contested nature of key concepts such as social justice and the importance of the arts in providing a critique of society.

It also highlights the importance of developing informed views, including those challenging conventions and the status quo. The paper certainly takes a stand on the importance of representative democracy as a way of guaranteeing liberty but it does not advocate any particular system.

A third set of commentators has expressed concern about the ability of schools to ensure that all young people are politically literate, given the subject choice at 14-plus and the possibility that many will miss out on key areas of political knowledge and understanding. The paper sets out various ways in which schools might use the expertise of social subjects staff to ensure that knowledge gaps are filled in. Education for citizenship should encompass but go beyond political literacy.

The paper is not the last word. The need to see ourselves as part of a local, national and global community has never been greater. Schools surely have a part to play in developing this consciousness. Education for citizenship seeks to do just that.

Pamela Munn is professor of curriculum research, Edinburgh University. She chaired the review group on education for citizenship.

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