Keep the dull out of democracy

6th October 2006 at 01:00
The teaching of citizenship in many schools is inadequate, misguided and not taken seriously enough by heads, according to Ofsted. You cannot teach children about democracy if they don't experience it, inspectors said. And if that was not bad enough, according to that national broadcasting institution, David Dimbleby, chairman of TV's Question Time, it's guilty of the worst sin imaginable: it's dull (page 15).

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the young are being turned off the conventional means of influencing the world around them by their experience in schools, or by the spin and tit-for-tat political jousting presided over by broadcasters, there is a large element here of "glass half empty" pessimism. Ofsted found considerable progress in schools, given that citizenship only became a statutory requirement on the personal whim of David Blunkett in 2002. Even more might have been done if teachers had been given a clearer rationale for what was expected and the chance to train or retrain for this radical shift. Previously they were discouraged by legal restraints from venturing into contentious issues in the classroom.

There are no league tables of children achieving grade C or above in democratic values. And no school has ever gone into special measures for failing to teach the functions of Black Rod. So perhaps some school leaders juggling the cascades of government imperatives did afford this one less attention than it deserved. But many did not. The glass is not even half empty: only a quarter of schools were judged inadequate by Ofsted. And as the hundreds of schools entered for the TES Make the Link Awards showed (page 28), along with many achieving the British Council's International School Award, many are not only teaching the values and principles of global citizenship, but actively living them.

Mr Dimbleby is right to caution against safe dullness. But it has to be recognised that debating sensitive issues carries risks and demands skills which teachers must practise. Schools run as near-dictatorships - as those most popular with parents sometimes are - cannot expect to produce critical, active citizens without themselves becoming more democratic and listening to what their pupils have to say.

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