Let's stop sitting on citizenship;Last Word

10th April 1998 at 01:00
It is amazing how frightened people get at any proposal for lessons on citizenship. The only differences among the doubters concern whether they are more worried about the Government's thought-police, the teachers or the young people at the heart of the matter gaining control through such a foolhardy extension of the curriculum.

The social control school of thought has been fuelled by the Prime Minister's invocation of the active citizen, and by Government adviser Michael Barber's recent polemic at the secondary heads' conference extolling global citizenship - though neither is a new nor unhealthy idea.

Professor Barber's cool analysis of the diminishing role of Christianity in our national life has added to wilder fears that citizenship could supplant religious education in the timetable - though it is hard to argue that the two are mutually exclusive, and we can be sure that Tony Blair would not find them so.

But somehow Professor Barber's speech combined with publication of Bernard Crick's report from the Government's advisory group on citizenship and democracy in schools to provoke Patrick Tobin, chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, to babble of Nazi Germany, and Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, of totalitarianism. Even Radio 4's Moral Maze team couldn't find their way out.

The notion that a future Government might use lessons in how to be a good citizen as an instrument for indoctrination is not so deep-seated, however, as the allegation that teachers might misuse them in the same way. Indeed, it was that climate of mistrust about teachers (which has done so much damage in so many ways) which helped to drive citizenship's close cousin, political education, off the curriculum agenda under the Thatcher Government, and wiped out the political literacy of a generation.

The evidence for this comes not just from the well-documented disinclination of first-time voters to use their votes at the last election - attributed to both apathy and cynicism - but from the results of an Anglo-American research project which was presented two years ago at a Citizenship Foundation seminar in London.

Conducted by Professor Ivor Crewe, now vice-chancellor of Essex University, and Professor Donald Searing of the University of North Carolina, one of the striking findings of the study - carried out through 3,000 interviews in six matched communities over four years - was that 80 per cent of the 15 and 16-year-old British pupils never got the chance to discuss major political developments in class, or even issues affecting their own communities. Their American counterparts tended to do better.

Professor Crewe added that discussion in school, infrequently though it occurred (especially in Britain), did appear to nurture the practice of public discourse. And that, he argued, is an essential element of active citizenship in a democratic society. Formal coursework, Professor Crewe concluded, was not enough. Although it conveys institutional and political information about a political system, "it is in their discussions with teachers, in whatever classes or activities these take place, that pupils appear to acquire the skills and propensities for the practice."

Those of us who have had the chance to observe how much more articulate are American teenagers than their British counterparts, in civic matters or otherwise, have also made a connection with the greater emphasis on discussion in the US classroom, coupled with a readiness to listen to the views of young people.

Here, the last Conservative Government's determination to quash subversive tendencies combined with national curriculum pressures to make teachers increasingly nervous about handling anything like political education.

Like their pupils, many now lack practice in the art of classroom discussion on current issues. Kenneth Clarke as education secretary even proclaimed that history must stop at 1968. Only Sir Keith Joseph insisted that the best counter to indoctrination was to give young people the facts and the skills with which to make up their own minds.

This is very close to what Professor Crick and his eminent team are proposing now, and I profoundly hope that neither the Government nor the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority lose their nerve when confronted with Crick's final report in July - or lose sight of Professor Crewe's conclusions.

Effective citizenship lessons require three strands, which only acquire value in combination: there is the instruction on how our democratic systems work; then the moral dimension which must inform decision-making is woven in; and finally there should be the opportunity to apply the lessons and practise the skills which can influence events in a civic society, through talking about the issues ("public discourse") and through voluntary activity. That is why Crick's proposal for assessment of pupil participation in voluntary activities is important.

There is a crucial difference between learning about and learning to, or practising, which does not fool young people, any more than it did a generation like mine which was bored rigid by dry civics lessons and only learned active citizenship much, much later. We mustn't use citizenship now as code for social order, to encourage picking up litter and respect for authority, but not tree protesters. There is also a difference between cynicism, which ministers rightly deplore, and a probing scepticism, which they are far too nervous about.

Civic education is alive and well in Scotland, Europe, the US, Canada and Australia. Countries such as Sweden and Denmark engage young people in decision-making from an early age, and so do the best of our own school councils - but we sorely need a secure berth for citizenship in the curriculum.

At the height of the indoctrination rows last time round, Janet Street-Porter conducted a student survey through one of her "Yoof" TV programmes. The respondents overwelmingly claimed that, although some of their classmates might be indoctrinated by their teachers, it could never happen to them. My own schoolboy son gave me the same reply at the time. You have to trust young people and their teachers too. You won't get healthy public discourse or a confident society otherwise.

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