Now we can train real political animals

5th April 2013 at 01:00
Abandoning fluffy fair trade for a tough intellectual agenda gives heft to the new citizenship curriculum, argues Tom Finn-Kelcey

So we finally have a new national curriculum - or at least a draft of one - from education secretary Michael Gove and friends. As a citizenship-trained teacher, I scanned my copy with trepidation, fully expecting the subject that began my teaching career to have joined New Labour in the dustbin of history.

I was wrong. It has been retained and its new, more focused format may give it a fighting chance to shed its reputation as a catch-all for the delivery of moral crusading. It may even become a concrete, intellectual, knowledge-based subject. This rewrite of the curriculum is a good opportunity to learn from the mistakes made in the subject's first decade, and to begin delivering serious political education.

When citizenship was introduced in 2002 after the Crick report, there was considerable excitement about the possibility of properly "doing some politics" in schools, something that prompted me to join one of the first cohorts trained in the subject. I was enticed away from a career in politics by the possibility of teaching young people all about the political process and the vagaries of the justice system and the law, and engaging in the great political debates of our time.

What I found in schools was not what I had been hoping for. All too often the subject enjoyed low status and was frequently staffed by a disparate range of non-specialists, who in many cases did not feel confident to teach about political issues and in some cases did not really care either. Into this vacuum of apathy stepped every kind of pressure group imaginable, eager to get their cause taught in the classroom.

It never ceases to amaze me how units of work from pressure groups have been uncritically dropped into the citizenship curriculum in many schools: from animal rights groups such as Compassion in World Farming; human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; and, of course, the good old Fairtrade Foundation, without which no mediocre citizenship course would be complete.

Now, I happen to quite like some of those causes, but that is hardly the point. Fair trade, for example, may have laudable aims but it is not inherently good - many have argued that it hampers development by preventing the free market from operating, and at worst is akin to modern-day imperialism. The idea that it is good teaching to plan a scheme of work on fair trade based solely around a pack of resources from the Fairtrade Foundation should be frankly embarrassing to any teacher.

The point is that the intention of citizenship should never have been to indoctrinate children into any specific set of political or social values, but to engage them in debate and encourage them to make up their own minds from a base of sound knowledge and understanding.

Value-laden from the outset

Perhaps if I had read my Crick report more closely I would have seen these problems coming. The whole citizenship project faced problems from the outset because it conflated two different things. The first was a genuine need to educate young people about the political process and get them discussing politics critically - something previously missing from the curriculum. But the second was the notion that we needed to use citizenship to instil certain sets of values into children.

The previous curriculum was full of the language of contemporary values - respect for multiculturalism, unquestioning acceptance of social justice, rights balanced with responsibilities, sustainable development, the immense positives of migration and diversity. Reading the document some years on, one cannot mistake it for anything other than a recipe for the instilling of Third-Way, Blairite values into young people. This demonstrates the problems inherent in allowing the curriculum to be used to teach contemporary values as fact. The new one should be viewed as a chance for a fresh start.

The main positive in this respect is how focused it is. It has been designed to cover just a few areas, centred on the study of the political system, the constitution, our legal system and our traditional liberties. It allows for the study of competing political systems and their relative merits, along with the implications of differing electoral systems. For the first time, it specifically mentions the need to study the legislature, judiciary and executive, and their relationship. It still contains the requirement for active citizenship, but by removing much of the value-laden New Labour-speak of its predecessor, it allows more scope in this area.

Of course, nothing is perfect. The Department for Education has tacked on a section on financial management, shifted rather thoughtlessly from the PSHE curriculum. This detracts somewhat from the clearer focus on political knowledge. It is to be hoped that the consultation will do away with this particular add-on.

What we are left with overall, though, is positive. We have a chance to focus citizenship on delivering some high-quality, knowledge-driven education, inspiring young people with the fascinating and sophisticated issues raised by in-depth study of the political. There will need to be a considerable shift in the mindset of teachers for this to happen, but the opportunity exists to make citizenship a really serious part of the curriculum.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent.

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