One not out

12th September 2003 at 01:00
The first year of citizenship has been hit by timetable pressures and lack of training. Nicholas Pyke talks to the cynics and the optimists

Professor Bernard Crick's 1989 report on citizenship set out some lofty, even revolutionary goals. "We aim," it said, "at no less than a change in the political culture of this country... for people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life and with the critical capacities to weigh evidence before speaking and acting."

One year into the country's first statutory curriculum in the subject, and this vision of an empowered citizenry rippling with democratic muscle remains some way off. The passions of the mayoral election at the heart of Channel 4's A French Affair (a documentary of life in a Burgundian village) remain a world away from a Britain where voting is more closely associated with Big Brother than with local government.

This is no surprise. Professor Crick and his government backers accepted at the outset that the citizenship revolution would be a seriously long-term project. Nor is it much of a shock that in a great many schools the fledgling subject has been met with apathy and no more than grudging compliance, but the weight of criticism is striking all the same.

Perhaps the most damaging evidence comes from Her Majesty's Inspectors, whose report, published earlier this year, suggested that citizenship was languishing in the timetable hole marked PSHE, a subject that carries little clout or respect among pupils or teachers. "In the majority of cases, citizenship has been set mainly with existing personal, social and health education. Generally this arrangement is proving unsatisfactory," said the inspectors. "In only a minority - one in five schools - is citizenship well developed." The staff responsible for the new subject frequently have no status and are unable to influence heads of department.

Standards, said HMI, are "too often unsatisfactory". This is fairly damning stuff even though, as the citizenship optimists point out, the research was carried out in the first months of the school year, and with only 25 schools.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has more comprehensive data from its continuing survey, but it, too, has concluded that citizenship is overwhelmingly taught through PSHE departments - in perhaps nine out of 10 schools. The QCA wants to stress that schools and teachers are free to choose their own way of delivering the curriculum. But privately, officials can't help acknowledging that the conflation with PSHE is a matter of concern.

Jacqueline Watson, a researcher at the University of East Anglia, has recently published a report, Citizenship Education and its Impact on Religious Education, suggesting that citizenship co-ordinators in schools are having to squeeze the subject into an already heavy schedule with no allowances made. She also believes that the formal part of citizenship, for example the political literacy, is dominating the subject at the expense of the less clearly defined aspects, such as "active citizenship".

There has been further gloomy news from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and from CSV (formerly known as Community Service Volunteers). Both organisations point to a worrying lack of training. CSV, which has just published its own survey of 60 schools, suggests that in half of them the specialist co-ordinator was the only properly trained member of staff. NFER research has found that 70 per cent of teachers have had no citizenship training at all. The CSV report, Citizenship in the National Curriculum, One Year On, concludes that there is no "quick fix" for the subject, calling instead for a robust long-term strategy that is nurtured by all its stakeholders.

Ministers are under no illusions either. As a citizenship adviser with the Department for Education and Skills put it: "There are some schools where not much is happening. It's all points between nothing and all singing, all dancing. I guess it's what you'd expect."

With so much gloomy news in recent months, the groups and agencies promoting the subject have started to hit back, pointing out that these are early days in a subject already planning 10 years ahead.

"We do need to bear in mind, in any account of citizenship, that it is the first year. It's a long job," says Tony Breslin, chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation, a charity which has lobbied hard for the subject and supports schools trying to make it work. "We're interested not just in a new subject, but in a new kind of subject."

Citizenship, they are keen to point out, is here to stay and, by implication, schools had better get used to it. The subject comes with considerable political and administrative fiat. Certainly the DfES is planning for the long term, and has for example commissioned the NFER to carry out a seven-year study of children taking the subject, and the effect it has. A short GCSE course has been introduced to support citizenship (teachers hope it will have the same sort of motivational benefits that a similar short course has brought to religious studies). Teacher training departments, meanwhile, have started to turn out 175 specialist citizenship teachers a year.

Writing in The TES, Will Ord, professional officer with the Association for Citizenship Teaching, bemoaned the atmosphere of gloom - the insistence, as he put it, on seeing the glass as half empty. "Early research supports what many teachers know from daily experience - that children who are actively involved in the creation of their own projects, who are given real responsibility and respect, tend to improve in their behaviour and achievements," he writes. There is a link between good citizenship education, and high standards of learning and behaviour. "In short, we all benefit when citizenship works well."

There have already been major attitudinal gains, he says, with a broad agreement developing about the goals of citizenship for example. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more schools are setting up pupil councils. In some cases, these are even helping to produce a less authoritarian approach to school management.

Then there is the fact that a minority of secondary schools have already demonstrated success in the subject, showing it is possible despite the concerns elsewhere.

Deptford Green is worth watching. The school, a large mixed comprehensive in the London borough of Lewisham, is the closest thing possible to a specialist citizenship technology college, and receives pound;150,000 a year from the DfES, from an inner city regeneration budget and through commercial sponsorship. It is a Rolls-Royce model, with a citizenship curriculum at the heart of school life, and extra teachers to teach it. But according to Peter Pattisson, one of the subject leaders at the school, what they do can be copied elsewhere without too much difficulty, given a basic level of commitment.

Citizenship has also made strides at primary level, where the tradition of single-class teaching makes the cross-curricular nature of the subject easier to manage, and inroads at sixth form level - perhaps a more natural place for constitutional discussion.

The citizenship lobby accepts there are some important technical problems facing schools. There are, for example, few management strategies around for helping teachers create a subject that is genuinely cross-curricular.

Some have complained about a lack of training opportunities. Teachers and local authority officials at a recent London conference staged by the ACT suggested that they were starved of both time and resources. Nobody is even talking about what will happen to the subject when Mike Tomlinson's 14-19 review throws the entire curriculum up in the air next year. Not publicly, anyway.

There is also a less technical problem, which is that large numbers of senior teachers refuse to accept that citizenship is necessary as a separate subject, however laudable it sounds. Spokey Wheeler, head teacher at the Wavell School in Farnborough and a member of the Secondary Heads Association's national executive, is typical of many: "In the end, the difficulty is that you get an artificial curriculum. Citizenship is entirely what schooling is about... but many pupils have a real problem responding to a curriculum which which isn't a natural discipline.

Citizenship is part of the life blood of a school. Everything we do teaches citizenship." The Wavell School has not introduced separate citizenship lessons, nor will it in the future.

Details of HMI and CSV reports below

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