Children need to learn how to become active citizens. Anne Webster looks at how teachers are coping with a constricting curriculum.
The recent election campaign brought into sharp relief the need for a greater understanding of the way our political system and democracy work. As we saw, part of the electorate was alienated from voting altogether, staying away from the polls or preferring Newbury by-pass style protest.
In 1990 the House of Commons Speaker's Commission on Citizenship recognised that Britain had been transformed into a multiracial society and looked for ways of creating conditions in which everyone could, if they wished, become actively involved in public life. The subsequent national curriculum recognised that schools should "lay the foundations of positive, participatory citizenship", and made education for citizenship one of five cross-curricular themes.
Currently, the emphasis on core subjects and their testing has marginalised the cross-curricular themes. There is now little or no time for social, political, legal or other studies which could give children some of the skills and knowledge they need to live full and informed lives as citizens.
In the course of research into citizenship education, I recently interviewed humanities teachers in an inner-city comprehensive school in London and social studies teachers in public high schools in New York. One of the teachers in the London school commented that there was no scope in the national curriculum for children to question what they are taught or exactly what they might understand by citizenship: "In-built are specific ideas of authority and how one should respond to authority".
Other teachers regarded the national curriculum as too prescriptive and too content-laden so there was no time to pursue themes of interest to individual children. The problem is particularly acute in multi-ethnic schools. Referring to a key stage 3 history syllabus, which is largely traditional, another teacher said: "We have students from all over the world, such as the one who has just arrived in my class who is Russian. Can you imagine what William the Conqueror means to them?" All the teachers I spoke to regarded the national curriculum as a constraint. They felt that it prevented them from using their professional judgment as to how best to meet the learning needs of their students, educating them for citizenship.
Much of what the teachers said about the national curriculum would appear to be borne out by other evidence. The national curriculum was set up in less than ideal conditions with minimal professional involvement. Mountains of paper, and working at breakneck speed, were the order of the day. Sir Ron Dearing's review admitted that the "combined weight of all the subject curricula was simply too great to be manageable."
There was, however, little in his report which offers learning choices to students or supports student initiatives, or the kind of active participation suggested in the Speaker's Commission Report - omissions which have subsequently been reinforced by the Department of Education and Employment's refusal to allow an extension of coursework for student assessment. There is also a tendency to link citizenship education with a "moral mission", as did Nick Tate, chief executive of the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, at a conference in January 1996.
We can also learn from the consequences of operating mandatory curricula in the USA. My interviews with social studies teachers in four public high schools in New York City showed a consensus that the biggest hindrance to delivering citizenship education (which is recognised in the USA as the rationale of social studies), arose from the problems of operating within a mandated curriculum.
Many of these problems stemmed from teachers being unable to assert their professional judgment about the learning needs of their students, notably as citizens. The scramble to complete the syllabus resulted in a dependence on the approved textbook. Significantly, the school where much the largest percentage of students graduated, and where there were hardly any drop-outs, was the one where the curriculum was determined by the teachers and where tests had been abandoned in favour of a portfolio of students' work.
This school was allowed by the New York Board of Education to set its own agenda as a member of the Essential Schools Movement, pioneered by Theodore Sizer at Brown University, a leading figure in the reform of American public education.
My research leads me to conclude that citizenship education should be a recognised subject area, the content of which should include political and legal education - both of which provide a vehicle for the rational analysis and discussion of current issues and also provide the knowledge essential for active citizenship.
It is essential that teaching methods should allow for student participation and the opportunity for critical thinking, with more coursework to allow for student choice and student-led enquiry. Collaborative learning and problem solving can then take place.
Teachers need more scope to make professional judgments about the content of a course for citizenship education fashioned to take into account the needs and interests of their students.
All this requires a movement away from a common mandatory curriculum which takes little account of cultural diversity, and stifles choice and flexibility for teachers in what they teach and students in what they learn. As Theodore Sizer has said, a mandatory curriculum "can lead down a dangerous and potentially undemocratic road".
Anne Webster is a former teacher at Queen Mary's College, Basingstoke and is currently doing research on citizenship at Reading University.