Modern studies wins more votes

22nd August 2003 at 01:00
President John F. Kennedy told Congress in 1961: "Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education." He might have added that teaching social, economic and political literacy should be a key part of that.

Surprisingly, for a long time our own nation did not really see it that way. Modern studies teachers often had to justify their subject to doubtful school managers, guidance teachers, parents and university admissions officers.

Now modern studies is a strong part of the Scottish curriculum. A recent Modern Studies Association survey of all state secondaries in Scotland shows 80 per cent of S1 and S2 students now undertake a modern studies course. That is an increase from 75 per cent in 1994.

However, the figure masks wide regional disparities. Seven local authorities teach modern studies to every S1 student, but some areas have very patchy coverage. In Edinburgh, home of the Scottish Parliament, only 53 per cent of S1 students are taught a subject which explains how it works.

Uptake of the subject in S3 and beyond also shows regional variations. Yet its share of presentations for certificated courses is healthy.

So, the teaching situation is not perfect but has improved. There is now greater awareness of the importance of teaching about society and politics, perhaps caused by concerns about electoral apathy. There is also a growing focus on citizenship education, with the recent publication of Education for Citizenship in Scotland by Learning and Teaching Scotland acknowledging the key role that modern studies plays in this field.

The impetus for the subject's evolution has come from within the subject's community. Put 10 teachers in a room and often the first thing they will produce is a list of problems. Put 10 modern studies teachers in a room and they will often find solutions to those problems. Years as the perceived underdog have created a very positive community.

To secure its role in the curriculum the subject still needs to do what it does best: adapt. But it is important that we have a clear vision of the future, particularly its evolving relationship with the citizenship education agenda.

Of course modern studies will continue to teach students about core aspects of political literacy, for example, but it also needs to engage with some of the trickier aspects of citizenship education.

LT Scotland's paper suggests that school pupils ought to develop the "capacity to imagine alternative realities and futures that could benefit society". Modern studies students do this all the time in a tangential fashion, but this now needs to be formally developed within syllabuses.

If these changes are fully developed from within the subject community, they are likely to confirm modern studies' place at the heart of citizenship education. It is therefore imperative that teachers respond creatively and imaginatively to any proposed changes.

They should form stronger ties with the other social subjects. This is no plea for woolly cross-curricular initiatives, but rather a suggestion that these subjects work together to their mutual advantage.

LT Scotland's Social Subjects Citizenship Liaison Group is mapping out the role of social subjects in citizenship education and soon it should be clearer how they can interact to benefit pupils. Hopefully this will kick-start greater co-operation in terms of course content, assessment and course choice processes. Social subjects as an entity, and modern studies as a subject, can only benefit from working more closely together.

Gavin Clark is principal teacher of modern studieshistory at Dunbar Grammar, East Lothian

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