Students need real power;Talkback

4th June 1999 at 01:00
Citizenship is best learned by genuine responsibility, says Julia Bard

So citizenship is to be part of the national curriculum. Not a bad idea if it gives students the confidence to stand up for what they believe to be right; to act in the real world with all its inequalities and injustices while gaining the ability to change it.

But will it? What can citizenship mean in schools where students have no chance to define their own needs, no control over the curriculum and no influence over the institution in which they are legally required to spend every day?

At the very least, citizenship means having some say in the community to which you belong. Even very young children can learn to take responsible collective decisions and resolve conflicts given half a chance.

The students at my sons' inner city comprehensive have a school council to represent them. One recent successful campaign was for the school to install lockers so students would have somewhere safe to leave their belongings during the day. Members of the school council researched the health and safety risks of carrying heavy bags, persuaded the parents' association to raise money and answered teachers' reservations.

The school finally agreed to provide lockers for three year groups which the council decided should go to those with the greatest need - the youngest and the oldest. That was an education in citizenship.

But the whole truth is that the school council had been asking for lockers for more than a decade and succeeded only after the appointment of a new head who supported their cause. What the campaign showed was where power really lies - as if the students hadn't noticed.

And now they are to be taught "citizenship" and "democracy". The curriculum recommendations place great emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of students to the school, to the community and to those in authority but make no mention of the responsibilities of schools, communities - or the state for that matter - to students.

Pupils will learn about "the opportunities for individuals and voluntary groups to effect change" but the curriculum proposals do not deal with questions of conflicting interests, which are part of young people's lives.

The new national curriculum will tell students about "the need for mutual respect and understanding" but won't explain why atheists, Jews, Muslims and Hindus are required to attend Christian worship whenever Office for Standards in Education inspectors are around.

The "community" makes many positive appearances in the document, but communities are not necessarily democratic, nor necessarily good for children. What if children are powerless in their community? What will the citizenship curriculum teach them about being members of several communities - based on locality, ethnicity, religion or shared interests - some of which might be open and democratic, others insular, hierarchical and conformist?

They will be taught about "the world as a global community" but the reality of international politics and economics is rarely communal. Will citizenship education explain how democratic institutions such as parliament can sanction the sale of arms to dictatorial regimes to be used against civilians? But perhaps that will be explained when they are taught about "the consequences of antisocial behaviour including bullying".

Political literacy, one of the main strands of the proposed curriculum, is usually acquired through action. Residents trying to protect their homes from the advance of the M11 link road in east London soon learned the limits of planning regulations. Doreen and Neville Lawrence discovered uncharted parts of the justice system and enlightened a new generation of anti-racists. These activists learned to be effective citizens through assessing the needs of themselves and their communities, and by campaigning for those needs to be met.

The proposed citizenship education is unlikely to achieve that. The best way to educate the next generation of citizens in democracy is to let them act democratically. If students are given a genuine share in responsibility for themselves, they will quickly learn what citizenship means.

Julia Bard is the mother of twin boys in Year 8. She lives in north London

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