The limits of citizenship

9th February 2001 at 00:00
I am sorry that Mary Simpson found my response to the citizenship consultation "dispiriting" (TESS, February 2). Every educationist and every writer on educational matters, including myself, likes to be optimistic and encouraging and, indeed, I am not pessimistic in general about the future of Scottish education.

However, I remain of the opinion that Education for Citizenship in Scotland has a confused rationale and is an unsatisfactory paper. There was general agreement on this at the meeting of the Forum on Scottish Education on January 24. Indeed, the representatives of several bodies took an even harder line than I did.

Mary Simpson's piece adds to rather than subtracts from the doubts. She seeks to extend the school curriculum to even further hugely problematic areas such as the case for and against genetically modified foods and the issues surrounding global warming and climate change.

Society as a whole does not know where it is going on these questions. Highly authoritative voices are raised on both sides of the debates. Areas of general agreement, even among experts, are hard to find.

While it is desirable that young people should have access to the facts and should not have to depend on the tabloid press, teachers who venture into these controversial areas are in danger of being misreported and misrepresented. Many teachers will have strong personal opinions one way or the other and will find that objectivity is, with the best will in the world, hard to achieve.

I am not saying that crrent political, moral, scientific and ethical issues can be totally excluded from the schools, but they should certainly be approached with caution until some semblance of consensus in society as a whole has emerged. This will happen eventually, but it will take time.

The other question is whether it is at all sensible or practical to add to the already overcrowded school curriculum. We are not talking here about marginal additions but about huge new areas of human experience and understanding.

There has probably never been a time when so many really perplexing and indeed mind-boggling issues have been up for debate. Every day's news seems to raise new moral and ethical questions, many of them arising from scientific advances.

If the schools are going to be involved in these issues, we must first consider which teachers have the necessary expertise and training, what is to be in the curricular guidelines and what other parts of the programme are to be dropped to allow the new material to be accommodated.It would also be essential to find out the views of parents on the extent to which schools should venture into these areas at this time.

There is a strongly held view in the staffrooms that the education system and the schools are there to serve society but not to resolve its social problems or to pre-empt discussion on the great political and moral debates of the day. In theory, education is open-ended, but in practice it has some limits.

Fred Forrester Glenbervie Grove, Dunfermline

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