Lesson for the mandarins

26th May 2006 at 01:00
James Wood tells Kirsten Sellars about his recent stint advising Whitehall on citizenship teaching

Last year, James Wood, assistant head-teacher at Hertswood School in Borehamwood, exchanged his Hertfordshire comprehensive for the corridors of Whitehall. He was on secondment to the Consumer Strategy Unit at the Department for Constitutional Affairs to help shape its approach to citizenship teaching in schools.

Wood came to the subject via geography. "I remember doing a lesson on immigration," he recalls. "The kids were moaning about 'our tax money' going to asylum seekers. When I tried to explain that a very small amount went in that direction, one boy said, 'So the rest goes to the government' - implying that it was used for Tony Blair's holiday fund. This lack of understanding of the way the world works undermined their grasp of other subjects, so I thought I'd give citizenship teaching a go."

How did he get to grips with a new subject? "You need different skills," he replies, "such as being able to lead debate and group discussion. I aimed for lots of speakers, active learning and debate - a good lesson does not necessarily require a pen and paper."

He points out that when citizenship is well-taught it is the most popular subject. "Kids are very keen to get engaged, and when we've done a good job here, they've lapped it up. They enjoy doing tax, strangely enough. We based some lessons on material from the Treasury (see www.redbox.gov.uk), and they really liked Fantasy Chancellor League.

"Although they come up with 'bomb them, flog them, lock them up' rhetoric, (in the role play) they tended to put the money towards health, education and even international development. Very few of them wanted to fund the army - not on pacifist grounds, but because they didn't see it as 'our job' to look after other countries such as Iraq."

The Department for Constitutional Affairs was keen to draw on Wood's classroom experience to communicate its aims of justice, rights and democracy to schools and, when he arrived, he found himself educating a new group of people. "The disconnect between policy-makers and the front line in schools is huge," he says. "For example, when someone wants to alter policy, one question they ask is: 'Can we change the curriculum to get that message across?' They seem to think that just by changing the words, the job is done in schools."

He also found that some officials were unfamiliar with the content of the curriculum, proposing to insert subjects that were already there. Teaching and civil service professionals speak different languages, he says.

While he was at the department, Wood and his colleagues examined what worked best in and out of the classroom, and came down in favour of creating "communities of practice", designed to link schools with local experts in councils, courts, tribunals, law practices and university law departments.

The issue then became how best to tap these resources. The courts, for example, are keen to promote their work in schools, but lack the facilities to handle large numbers of pupils. Wood concluded that by training teachers, courts could cut the amount of education they do, but increase its impact.

By the same token, he regards some parts of the citizenship curriculum as "over-resourced", pointing out, for example, that there are 153 packs on democracy and human rights available to schools. "At that rate, there'll soon be thousands," he says. (See nfer.ac.ukresearch-areascitizenship) The emphasis on community links chimes with his stress on local issues in citizenship lessons. "You need to associate the subject with the kids' day-to-day life to make it real to them," he argues.

"It's really interesting when we get them to discuss their own community.

In December 2002, a man named Wayne Trotter was burned to death in the town -someone poured petrol on him and lit a match. Soon after, The Guardian sent someone here. She made the point in her article (Eve-Ann Prentice, "Split screen", January 22, 2003) that when you leave the station, you either go left into wealthy Elstree or right into poorer Borehamwood.

"When they debated it in class, some children said, 'That's right, Borehamwood is a dump. We don't like it.' Others said, 'This is our town - they've no right to come here and slate us.'" Wood says that well-trained teachers are the key to success. "My line at the department from the beginning was that you have a cohort of teachers trying to teach a subject they don't know enough about, and don't have the skills or confidence to teach properly," He points to DfES research to back this up.

"The class might be an hour a week, and if you are a biology or English teacher, you won't really want to do it. So I argued that if they wanted to support the citizenship curriculum, they needed to support the teachers teaching it, and that has became the policy."

He also learnt a valuable lesson. "I now understand that the teaching of citizenship is evolving. In schools, you get the impression that somebody somewhere knows exactly what they are trying to achieve, and that we just need to work out what they want us to do. But actually, it is an open question."

So how did life in a government department compare with the classroom? "School's fun, but stressful," he says. "There are no bells in Whitehall."

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